Food History

How Hoecakes Mark the Endurance & Strength of Black Americans

"Today’s hoecakes are fried with oil in a skillet; but the dish’s name is a hint at its origin, a reminder of our ancestors’ abilities to make something whole out of the scraps we were given."

February  4, 2022
Photo by Bobbi Lin

During the summers when my father’s mother came to visit our family, she often cooked unforgettable soul food. Her bill of fare during those months included candied yams, mashed potatoes, cobblers, and cornbread. Born in Columbia, South Carolina, during the Great Depression, when Jim Crow laws were still in effect, my grandmother knew well the traditional practices and importance of African American cuisine. Through one dish, in particular, she took it upon herself to mark the strength and survivorship that comes with Black roots—she’d mix up a simple batter, fire up the stove, and make us hoecakes.

Doused in a thick syrup—my grandmother used Alaga Original Cane Syrup—hoecakes are a point of pride in the African American community. The dish has a simple ingredient lineup, with cornmeal as its core, and often includes milk and eggs. Today’s hoecakes are fried with oil in a skillet; but the name is a hint at origin, a reminder of our ancestors’ abilities to make something whole out of the scraps we were given. According to my grandmother, the term “hoecakes” was used because the cakes were cooked on a shovel, or hoe, over an open flame. Their very existence is another example of perseverance and required adaptability of enslaved people, whose resources were scant. This mythos behind the dish (and its etymology) was upheld through tales told by many others in the African American community.

“I heard stories from my grandma that they would use a simple gardening tool (hoe) to cook them over an open fire,” Chef Duane Nutter, the owner of Southern National, a restaurant in Mobile, Alabama, explained via email. His early memories of the “humble hoecake” involve his mother serving them alongside red beans and rice. “We also referred to them as hot water cornbread.”

Beatrice Iker, a writer who grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the valley of the Smoky Mountains, said her earliest memories of hoecakes were, like mine and Nutter’s, through her grandparents. “They were always in disagreement about whether or not hoecakes and johnnycakes were interchangeable words—it was so funny watching them debate,” she said. But Iker’s understanding of the hoecake's origin was that it was made in a type of cast-iron pan or griddle called a hoe.

In his oft-cited essay, "How the Hoe Cake (Most Likely) Got Its Name," historian Rod Cofield notes that many 19th- and 20th-century books “claim that a hoecake is so-called because it was baked on the blade of a gardening hoe by slaves in the fields, who furthermore, apparently took the necessary ingredients with them to mix and bake during their mid-day break.” Cofield points out that supporting evidence of this explanation is in fact limited, and that the bulk of written accounts reference a piece of cooking equipment—not a garden tool—called a “hoe,” as the source of the name hoecake.

Predictably, the actual origin of the hoecake is also disputed. While enslaved people in the U.S. indeed made hoecakes, there isn’t much evidence supporting the notion that they were the first to do so. Particularly because, as Cofield underlines, there are records indicating that hoecakes were mentioned in recipe books and other written accounts as early as 17th-century England and Virginia, both of which nod to the Native American influence on colonists.

“From a naming standpoint, the term hoe used for a cooking implement as early as the 1670s strongly suggests that when colonists baked a mixture of Indian corn (or wheat) and liquid on a peel or griddle, this food item became known as a hoecake,” Cofield explains. “The name stuck even when a hoecake was cooked in a skillet or pan.”

Variations of cornmeal-based batter breads and flatbreads cropped up across the early U.S. colonies with different names, including, among others, johnnycake (the term Iker’s grandparents debated) and “ash cake,” (Mark Twain even includes a method for one in his 1880 book A Tramp Abroad.) In publishing the first American cookbook in 1796, Amelia Simmons also includes the first documented reference to the johnnycake-versus-hoecake debate: The recipe title was “Juhny Cake, or Hoe Cake.” She calls for a mix of “Indian meal” (a form of cornmeal), milk, and flour to be baked “before the fire”—but makes no mention of the type of cooking tool to be used. If only Simmons had included such a detail, we could perhaps solve the mystery.

Paul Lukas writes in The New York Times that the term "johnnycake" might have evolved from an Indigenous term for corn: joniken. It was indeed Indigenous Americans across the land now known as the U.S. who introduced Europeans to native foodstuffs such as tomatoes, peppers, as well as maize, or corn. As Lukas points out, the Narragansett Indian Tribe made something similar to johnnycakes as early as the 1600s, with the settling of European colonists in the area, but likely even earlier.

The dish remained popular across races and socioeconomic status. A 1821 letter written by George Washington’s step-granddaughter Nelly Custis Lewis highlights not only that the president favored hoecakes for breakfast but also that the terms “hoe” and “griddle” were used interchangeably. “His breakfast was then ready—he ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey, and drank three cups of tea without cream,” Lewis writes of Washington's morning routine, before describing the creation process: “Add as much lukewarm water as will make it like pancake batter, drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south).”

Today, as appetites for honoring and learning about Black foodways grow, the hoecake’s place in the African American community remains significant. Between the pages of cookbooks written by Black authors past and present are the various takes on the survival meal of enslaved people during the antebellum period. In 1881, Abby Fisher, a former South Carolina slave, published What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, known for being one of the first written and published by an African American woman—the text included a recipe for hoecakes. Generations later, numerous Black chefs and culinary historians have published their own takes.

From Jessica B. Harris’s Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking to Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, the crisp-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside cornmeal-based treat continues to be celebrated. Whatever you prefer to call them, the stories attached to hoecakes are a reminder of how my Black ancestors helped shape American culture, well before some were even considered citizens. Forged by Indigenous Americans, adopted by Black people, the favorite of a Founding Father, and referred to by myriad names according to location, this standby of soul food is a reminder of survival and cultural exchange—you can’t get more American than that. As renowned Savannah, Georgia, cook Dora Charles, who shared her grandmother’s recipe for hoecakes in her book A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen writes, “Whatever name you use, you can't go wrong with them—everyone loves them, and they're so easy.”

What do you call hoecakes? How do you like to eat them? Let us know in the comments!
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