Monday, May 13, 2019

Painted Mountain Johnny Cakes

Most of us are familiar with the Thanksgiving-themed story of how the Pilgrims, after landing at Plymouth in 1620 and after having lost their cache of wheat carried from England due to spoilage, began starving during the first winter in their new settlement. And how the local Indians, the Pawtuxet tribe, came to the Pilgrims bearing gifts of corn which they taught the Pilgrims how to grind into cornmeal and cook over an open fire.

Today when most Americans think of corn, they’re thinking of the common supermarket yellow variety that has been bred over the years to achieve a superior sweetness. Sweet yellow corn is high in carbohydrates but somewhat lacking in other nutritional categories when compared to higher nutrition corn varieties. Rest assured that the corn the Indians grew and depended on as their primary food staple was NOT sweet yellow corn. The corn grown by the Pawtuxet and other Indian tribes of the unsettled American continent was highly nutritious, containing all ten of the primary amino acids needed by the human body and a significant amount of additional minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants vital to human health.

As we all know, the Pilgrims survived that winter and the rest is history.

High nutrition Indian corn continued to play a major role in early American frontier development, providing an easy to transport, easy to preserve and easy to prepare high nutrition food staple.

The Lewis and Clark expedition into the Oregon Territories carried a grain grinder and two barrels full of dried Indian Corn kernels. This was their primary food staple, one which “provides a man energy for the entire day” according to notes taken from the journal that chronicled the Lewis and Clark adventures. Along the way, the expedition found itself continually in need of replenishing their corn supply, so they traded with Indian tribes they came into contact with during their travels to obtain more of the vital food source.

During the Civil War Indian corn again played a major role, feeding armies on both sides of the conflict, but the Southern Confederate army especially developed a keen appreciation for “johnny cakes” prepared from the corn kernels – simple, fast, nutritious and tasty combined with easy long-term food storage.

Pioneers and no doubt many a mountain man heading off into the western wilds nearly always carried Indian corn kernels in large quantities to sustain them during their long treks across dangerous lands. Indian corn was something that could absolutely be depended on to keep well and to provide plenty of nutrition and energy.


You begin to get the idea. Indian corn was an indispensable “super food” for pioneers and settlers of the early West and remains so to this day for many people worldwide. It is still being grown as the primary food source for many people in developing or third world nations today.

Unfortunately, in the modern world of fast food dinners, processed food and take-out restaurants, the glorious past of Indian corn has been largely forgotten (or never known at all) by the general population. I'm on a mission to change that! I strongly believe that these high nutrition corn kernels are THE ULTIMATE survival and self-sufficiency food, for all the reasons stated above and more.

Around here, we prepare and eat johnny cakes frequently. I had a couple for lunch today. Very filling, healthy and nutritious, and tastes good too when prepared correctly.

NOTE: Here at the mini-farm, we are diligently preparing for a time of great emergency that we know is coming.  We are focused on growing our own food, and not just any food.  Our primary crops are Painted Mountain Corn, potatoes, carrots, onions, honey, nuts, garlic and berries.  We focus on these crops because a) they are highly nutritious, b) they are easy to preserve for long term storage and c) these are among the primary food staples that generation upon generation of our ancestors survived on before "the age of fast food" and associated advertising promotions convinced people to forget traditional staple foods and begin consuming food that was processed, preserved and colored with chemical additives.  We believe that the time is rapidly approaching when economic and physical reality will force humans, primarily those of us living in "advanced" economies, to return to the basic food staples.  We're trying to get a head start on a very uncertain future here, and trying to re-learn what our ancestors needed to know in order to survive.  Growing high nutrition corn and learning to prepare it in ways that make it enjoyable to eat is one of the many steps we are taking.


There are of course other recipes for johnny cakes on the internet.  I think I've tried most of them. The recipe I'm describing here is my favorite.  My additions to the basic ingredients (cornmeal, salt, water) are one egg and two spoonfuls of honey.  Maybe some pepper sometimes.  I use dried Painted Mountain corn kernels that I grow and grind myself.  I'm still working on a crop of kernels that I grew five years ago -- and they still taste great!

Here on the mini-farm we use a hand crank grain mill.  It takes a pretty good arm to crank it sometimes, but I like the exercise.  Alternatively, I could transform the dried corn kernels into cornmeal the “old fashioned way”, the way that Indians and many other people around the world still do, and that is by pounding them. For that, a granite mortar and pestle like the one we have works fantastic.


1 cup of freshly ground cornmeal (one cup of whole kernels grinds down to about 1 1/3 cups of cornmeal flour)

3/4 teaspoon of salt

1 1/2 cups water

1 heaping kitchen spoonful of raw honey (maybe 2)

1 fresh egg

Light cooking oil or butter

NOTE: Do a search on Google for “johnny cake recipes”. You’ll find many that recommend frying your johnny cakes in bacon drippings. Give me a break! I tried that and guess what? My johnny cakes tasted like bacon grease! I imagine that if you’re in some kind of survival situation and bacon grease (or bear, or whatever) is all you have, then your johnny cakes are going to come out tasting GREAT regardless. The hungrier one gets, the less picky one gets, isn’t that the general rule?  I’m trying to give you a recipe here that you can use regularly at home and enjoy the result.


1) Put cornmeal, salt, honey and egg into a medium size bowl – honey will be sticky, no need to mix yet

2) Bring water to a rapid boil in a medium size saucepan, remove from heat.

3) Slowly mix hot water into the cornmeal/salt/egg/honey stirring constantly – resulting mixture should be rather thin but not runny

The Painted Mountain Johnny Cake batter should be a little on the thin side.

4) Heat oil in frying pan over medium to low heat for a slow fry – too high heat and you’ll have grease/oil splattering all over the place and your johnny cake will burn before the inside gets sufficiently cooked.  Too low heat and you'll be waiting longer than needed for it to brown.

5) When the pan is sufficiently warmed up, pour or spoon the batter into the pan. The batter should be thin enough to spread out mostly on its own.  Directly after pouring the batter into the pan, use a spatula to gently smooth the top of the Johnny Cake so that the thickness is uniform over the entire area that the Johnny Cake covers in the pan. 

NOTE: Some recipes call for thicker batter, and squashing the batter down to a thickness of one fourth inch once in the pan. But I tried that multiple times. I always ended up with a johnny cake that was browned on the outside but still wet and gooey on the inside. That doesn’t work for me, the texture is unappealing. That’s why I go with thinner johnny cakes.  

6) Fry until the down side is golden brown, then flip it over and brown the other side. Slow to medium fry is the key here – too fast and you’re likely to get “too brown” (i.e., black) and a still moist inside

7) Serve hot as you would a pancake – with butter, syrup, jam – however you prefer. Or just eat plain which is my preference.  Any Johnny Cakes remaining I always store stacked between paper towels, then I eat them "cold" as the day progresses and I feel a need to eat.

The resulting johnny cake will be rather thin and should be a little on the crunchy side. The edges should definitely be crunchy.  It will be somewhat sweet, taste a lot like regular cornbread with a touch of honey. It will be firm and appealing.  Think flat bread!

Notice that the johnny cake at the bottom looks a little different than the other two.  That's because I used no oil to cook that one, just a medium hot pan.

Here's the side view -- they should be less than 1/4 inch thick, maybe 1/8 inch is closer. They'll be firm but flexible, just like flat bread, and have a honey-sweet hint of flavor.

Suggestion: Try putting some pepper in your batter to spice things up, or maybe some crumbled blueberries to really liven up the taste!

I get five Johnny Cakes for every cup of corn kernels ground to corn flour.  That's enough to keep me fed and energized for hard manual labor all day long!  I often eat these with slices of meat and sometimes a salad.  They're great with coffee too.

One thing I do know for sure.  And that is, when the supermarkets run out of food and I'm forced to rely exclusively on the food I've grown and preserved, I will have no problem surviving on Johnny Cakes and other dried/dehydrated vegetables and fruits that we grow and preserve right here on the mini-farm.  That's real food security!