November 21, 2012

What the Heck is a Hoecake, Anyway?

Ah, the humble, oh-so-yummy hoecake. It's just a part of my Southern heritage, so the word rolls off my tongue easily, but it's drawn some pretty funny looks quite a few times for me as well. So, since it is Thanksgiving Eve, I thought there was no better time to explain one of my favorite holiday traditions.

A Little Hoecake History...

It's isn't so much of a cake as a bread really. This most humble of breads goes by many names: Johnny cake, Shawnee cake, ash cakes and even corn pone...but it will forever be a hoecake to me. Hoecakes have a long heritage in the South. According to one source, they were called johnny cakes in South Carolina as early as 1739, but the word hoecake first showed up around 1745.  I've read loads of different stories and tales about the origins of the hoecake, but nothing seems to pin down exactly where they came from. Suffice it to say, Native Americans had a long tradition of using corn and slaves carried on that tradition and are usually credited with making these Southern treasures.

So, what the heck is a hoecake, anyway?

It's different the world over now, but the traditional Southern hoecake is basically a cornbread pancake. These yummy little boogers get their name from the method used to cook them. Shovels and other farming tools were regularly used for cooking throughout the South in the 1700's, and one such utensil was the garden hoe. The large, flat spade on the hoe made it perfect for using as a griddle. Now that's ingenuity, people!  Don't tell me necessity isn't the mother of invention! Slaves would make a batch of corn mash (at it's simplest, ground corn meal mixed with hot water or milk, then fried in some sort of fat. I mean, it is a Southern thing, remember?) and then cook them on the blade of a hoe over an open fire. If you were super lucky, they might have even been served with a side of honey or maple syrup. Yum!

Nowadays, the recipe is a tad more involved (and the cooking surface is much improved) but the tradition is still one of my favorites. My sister loves herself a hoecake, and whoever makes the dressing always has to save one for her...if she isn't on hand to snatch one, that is! I remember listening to my grandmother talking about her recipe while I helped with preparations. We never had an educational discussion about why they were hoecakes. They were simply hoecakes and part of our Thanksgiving dressing recipe.

I think I was in 2nd grade before I learned why they had such a name. Mrs. Risher was awesome, and I spent a lot of time just talking to her at recess...yeah, I was that kid. It was Mrs. Risher that ended up explaining what a hoecake was during a class discussion/coloring worksheet session about blessings we were thankful for at Thanksgiving. (That was back around 1988. You know, when you could still talk about being thankful for blessings in school.) She had asked the class to raise our hands if we wanted to share a family tradition and I volunteered hoecake dressing. Yep, I was that kid too...always thankful for food.

Anyway, ever since then I was in love with anything about the past, so I cherished the fact my grandmother's recipe was centuries old...kind of. Who knew a little thing like a hoecake could hold so much history! So, now you know what a hoecake is and how it came to be. I guess you want the recipe to try your own, right? OK!

The Recipe

Now, I have to warn you of something: this recipe is like a lot of my grandmother's recipes. She doesn't measure. Ever. I don't think I've ever seen a measuring cup in her kitchen. She is an on-the-fly, just-gonna-eye-it kind of gal so I'm sorry in advance for the vague directions. This is as close as I could get after making it right along with her and writing things down every 5 to 10 seconds.

You're welcome.

1 cup self-rising corn meal  (*corn meal + a sprinkle of baking powder)
1 1/4 cup self rising flour   (*I used the same amount of Pamela's GF Baking and Pancake Mix)
1 egg
8 TBsp butter, melted (1 stick)
about 3 cups chicken broth (you may or may not use it all)

*Special note! Follow the starred suggestions for gluten free hoecakes, like me!

-Get yourself a skillet or griddle and heat it to medium or medium high.
-I spray my pan with cooking spray, but you can go all Southern Traditional and use butter.
-Whisk your corn meal and flour together, then add your egg and butter and mix until combined.
- Begin to add your chicken broth, stirring until combined. Add as much as you need to make a batter the consistency of thick pancake batter. It shouldn't be too runny.
-Use a medium spoon (I use a 1/4 measuring cup for larger ones, a tablespoon for smaller ones) and drop small to medium puddles of batter into your hot pan. Brown, then flip when you start to see bubbles. This is basically when you cook them just like regular pancakes.
-ENJOY! These are great with just a pat of butter, or you could go old school and eat them drizzled with honey or maple syrup.

Our Thanksgiving from 2010! These pictures were better than 2011, haha!
Thanks for listening to my ramblings, y'all. All this aside, make sure to take time tomorrow between the gravy and the cranberry sauce to be thankful for the fact you have both those things and more. I am so very thankful to be blessed with family and friends I adore, a roof over my head, a caring husband with a wonderful career, and food on our table...and much much more. I'm thankful you decided to share a moment here with me and I wish a Happy Thanksgiving to each and every one of you! God Bless!