Though it usually takes a backseat to the more broadly popular cornbread, or the iconic grits, johnny cake still holds some sway in the world of simple corn-based dishes. Yet nobody can agree on what to call this cornmeal flatbread, or on where such a playful name came from.
While Yankees call it johnny cake – a term that also made its way to my ears growing up on the left coast – southerners often use the term “hoe cake,” a linguistic nod to a kind of pan used to make the dish. The term “johnny” seems to stem not from someone’s name (I was secretly hoping that some cornmeal baron named Johnny had started the whole business as a publicity stunt.) but from the word “jonakin,” which traces its ancestry to entirely non-food or name related ancestors in New and Old England.
There’s even some speculation that it could have derived from the American Indian name, Shawnee.
Either way, johnny cake, like corn itself, is now something of an adopted mascot for globalization. First cooked up by Native Americans, it was adopted by northerner and southerner alike, though of course they can’t agree on what to call it. Even the Australians have a version.