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What is a Hoecake (and Where Can You Get One)?

The nationwide fascination with southern food means treats such as hoecakes are becoming mainstream.

But what is a hoecake, and where can you find them?

We’re looking at what sets them apart and digging into the history of this southern specialty.

Let’s tuck in!

Why Is It Called a Hoecake?

According to legend, hoecakes got their name from enslaved people cooking them on their farming hoes. This origin story evokes the perseverance, resilience, and grit that defines African-American cooking. 

However, hoe is also a colloquial term for griddle dating back to the 1600s in parts of England, where it was common to bake cakes on boards or griddles.

Other names for hoecake include johnnycakes, ashcake, battercake, corn cake, pone or cornpone, journey cake, mush bread, Shawnee cake, and jonakin. 

These are all regional names for flatbread from cornmeal. The name, type of batter, and cooking method vary from region to region. People might cook them on hot stones, a griddle, in a cast iron pan, over the ashes of a campfire, or in an oven.

The original Johnnycake came from New England, with Native Americans likely teaching the pilgrims how to make them. 

As a result, the term is possibly a mispronunciation of Shawnee cake, made by the native tribe of the same name. Some people called them journey cakes as travelers could easily carry them. It’s also possible that it originates from a long-forgotten Native word that sounds like jonakin.

Woman eating hoe cakes
Hoe cakes have a long and significant history as a food staple in the USA.

What Is a Hoecake?

The use of ground corn for cooking by Indigenous Peoples predates the arrival of Europeans to the continent.

The Indigenous Peoples taught the colonists how to make cornmeal dishes such as cornbread, grits, and johnnycakes. These are the roots of soul food dishes that remain staples of southern cooking.

A hoecake is a minimalist version of cornbread. It’s a thin, unleavened cake made from a simple cornmeal, water, and salt batter. The outside is crisp at the edges and has golden patches from the fat people fry it in. 

A corn cake should be sturdy enough to scoop other food on the plate but delicate enough to be appealing on its own.

Hoecakes are an example of primitive cornbreads, called pone, made because there wasn’t much more for cooks to work with. 

To colonists, corn was a crude substitute for the wheat flour of their homelands. Its dough was stubborn, unwilling to respond to yeast or other leavening agents. 

It produced a dense, earthy-tasting bread that wasn’t widely liked. In fact, immigrants called cornmeal batter the sad paste of despair. But over time, cornmeal batter became a point of regional pride. 

When it comes to corn-based bread, hoecakes are an excellent example of how much the bread has evolved from its origins. Light, fluffy, and sweetened, they’re often more cake than bread and less about the corn than the added ingredients.

Pro Tip: Learn more about southern cooking by discovering What Are Chitlins (and Where Can You Get Them)?

What Is the Difference Between a Pancake and a Hoecake?

The main difference between pancakes and johhnycakes is the addition of baking powder and baking soda, which create a thicker, fluffier texture. Served in a stack for breakfast, pancake toppings are often sweeter than hoecakes. 

We can trace the pancake’s history back to 5th century Greece. Breakfast often consisted of pan-fried cakes made from wheat, milk, and honey. The English first used the word pancake around the 15th century.

These days regional variations of round flatbreads can be seen as far away as Africa, East Asia, and Europe. Each culture has its own version of what we call pancakes. 

In the U.S., people make pancakes with flour, eggs, butter, and milk and cooked on a griddle or frying pan. In the South, they’re alternately called hotcakes, griddlecakes, and flapjacks. However, British versions are made with rolled oats and baked in the oven.

As mentioned above, the true difference comes from using baking powder and baking soda for leavening.

Stack of hoe cakes
Enjoy your hoe cakes either sweet or savory by mixing up your toppings.

Are Johnnycakes Easy to Make?

As with any classic flatbread recipe, hoecakes are considered peasant food. Traditionally, people made them with whatever ingredients they could afford and were available. Modern hoecakes often include butter, eggs, flour, and sugar to enhance the flavor. The key is to use fine-ground cornmeal to avoid a gritty hoecake. 

Now considered a southern quick bread or flatbread, hoecakes can be served for any meal, any time of day, straight out of a cast-iron skillet. 

Buttermilk can be a key ingredient. But if you don’t have any, there are a variety of substitutes. Regular milk with white vinegar is one good substitute for buttermilk.

The truly southern way to prepare hoecakes would be to fry them in bacon grease. So if you’re having them for breakfast, cook your bacon first, and then use the bacon fat for frying your pone.

Alternatively, you can fry them on a lightly greased griddle like a pancake. If you’re averse to fried food or want to reduce the recipe’s fat content, this is the way to go. Whatever method you use, they’re certainly quick and easy to make.

Pro Tip: Foodies will love enjoying a meal at any of these 7 Most Unique Restaurants in the USA.

Where Can You Get the Best Hoecakes?

The obvious answer to this question is a soul food restaurant in a southern state. 

However, with so many recipes available from famous southern cooks, the best hoecakes may be ones you make yourself.

But let’s discuss a couple of famous restaurants known for their corn cakes.

The first one is in Walnut Cove, North Carolina. The Hillbilly Hideaway is more than a restaurant; it’s a destination.

Even though the main attraction is the food, the establishment also has a general store, gift shop, and music hall. It offers live country, bluegrass, and gospel music every Saturday between March and October. The restaurant is alcohol-free, so bring the kids.

The second restaurant, known for its hoecakes, is located in Mount Vernon, Virginia. The restaurant is on the grounds of George Washington’s estate. After he died in 1799, the estate became a tourist attraction. 

Family members and visitors say johnnycakes were one of George Washington’s favorite foods. He ate them at breakfast, covered in butter and honey, with hot tea.

Because Mount Vernon was miles from the nearest tavern or restaurant, the management set a simple table just outside Washington’s kitchen to serve refreshments and light meals. They later added a gift shop and snack bar. 

But, in 1985, they built the inn and began full-service dinners. It makes sense that a restaurant with such a long history would have excellent hoecakes.

You’ll need to purchase admission tickets to tour the grounds, but they’re not required to dine at the restaurant.

Would You Try a Hoecake?

Hoecakes are versatile and good enough for any meal. Plus, you can add various ingredients to accompany sweet or savory dishes. They’re best when hot and crispy, but you can reheat leftovers in the oven. You can drizzle the pone with cane syrup or crumble it into buttermilk as a dessert. With so many possibilities, we think giving hoecakes a try is a no-brainer.

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