by Michael Bell

Eat what you are.


Jonnycakes from Bishop's Fourth Street Diner, Newport.

July combines the best and the worst, but hot, sticky days and swarms of mosquitoes are more than offset by littlenecks, stuffies, and butter-sugar corn followed by fresh blueberries. For the sweet tooth that cannot be satisfied by nature's fruit directly from the vine, there's frozen lemonade (Del's or New England, take your pick). Those who need more than a little grease with their seafood look for clam cakes. If a half-dozen clam cakes fail to generate a sizable grease spot through the paper bag within a few minutes, take them back for a refund.

Along with religion, politics, and sex, the topic of food never fails to stir up interest, if not an argument. Just ask a gathering of long-time Rhode Islanders the "right" way to make jonnycakes. (Yes, despite my spell-checker's insistence to the contrary, it is spelled properly. For the uninitiated, the only acceptable spelling of this gritty hoecake omits the "h". Sure, you will see it spelled "johnny", but when you do, my advice is to walk away—politely, of course. I might add that jonny cake and jonny-cake are acceptable variants.)

Spelling is only the beginning of controversy surrounding this humble fare of white corn meal fried on a griddle. To simplify a complex situation, those in South County (Washington County on your map) prefer their cakes made with boiled water whereas Newporters and Little Comptonites use cold milk. As one might expect of a place situated between South County and Newport, residents of Conanicut Island (Jamestown to most off-islanders) use a combination of water and milk.

Even more confusing, some Rhode Islanders in the northern portions of the Blackstone River Valley (under the influence of their Massachusetts neighbors, no doubt) equate jonnycakes with Indian bread or corn bread, which is yellow cornmeal baked in an oven. (I'm not even going to raise the dreaded issue of thick versus thin jonnycakes.)

Turning to clam chowder offers no relief. Searching for the Rhode Island clam chowder yields every possible combination of red, white, and clear. The South County tradition, attributed to the Narragansett Indians, calls for a clear broth made from chopped quahogs (hardshell clams), potatoes, onions, and salt pork. Others assert that, in addition to these ingredients, real traditional Rhode Island clam chowder contains tomatoes (stewed, and most assuredly not the watery concoction served up as Manhattan clam chowder). Finally, there is the milk faction, a decisive minority in this state even though they seem to have captured the rest of New England.

If local food customs seem peculiar, it's probably because they are—peculiar in the sense that they are indicative of one particular group. Although jonnycakes, like clam chowder, originated among the Native Americans (the name possibly a corruption of "journey cakes"), they are now identified with old Yankee culture in Rhode Island. More than mere nourishment, our food customs remind us of who we are and, at times, where we came from. As with all forms of folklore, foodways link us to an identifiable group with a unique history.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. A large portion of this article originally appeared in the July 1993 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author.

More folklore from Michael Bell...

This article last edited April 21, 2004

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