Flat As a Pancake

American colonists called them hoe cakes or johnnycakes, and they were heavier than our modern day pancakes, usually made with cornmeal or buckwheat, molasses and milk. There doesn’t seem to be any Johnny, but the name may have evolved out of the term “journey cakes” because they traveled well. (Although pulling out some pancakes from a hot, smelly saddlebag is not the most appetizing of images.)

Thomas Jefferson, on one of his frequent travels to Paris, brought back a similar recipe called crepes, which was a thinner form of our griddle cakes, without leavening, made with wheat flour and served with fruit or a sweet syrup. They were gobbled up at state dinners, and once again that industrious President introduced a new and delicious French dish to the colonists. (To this day, crepes are a popular street food in France.)

Consider that they were easy to make, eaten by hand, and the pioneers could cook them on a hot stone around the campfire after a long hard day of traveling. Native Americans probably taught the early colonists how to grind corn, mix it into a paste, add liquid, some fat and in just a few minutes, they had hoe cakes, hot and filling. Covered with fresh honey, they were a delicacy. With no need for a bread oven, they could be prepared quickly, and if the cook had a cast iron skillet, it could be coated in bacon fat and the batter fried. Those who were lucky enough to have butter slathered it on and just dug in, napkins be damned. (A shirt sleeve worked just fine.)

Early American hoe cakes undoubtedly made way for hush puppies, cornbread and grits, also made with cornmeal, but that’s a whole different story. By the way, hoe cakes got its name from field workers using a plain hoe held over a fire, and dropping cakes onto the hoe to cook.

Pancakes are enjoyed the world over in a multitude of variations, served plain, topped with sauces and spices, wrapped around fillings and eaten for lunch and dinner. Some form of flat cakes have been around for centuries, enjoyed by ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Romans, eaten in China, India and Europe. The British-named flapjacks are different from our pancakes and made with sugar, butter, and oats, usually served with honey.

Recorded history mentions pancake-like foods in the first century (possibly earlier), and historians who study Neolitic man speculate that flat cakes made with anything handy were probably cooked on hot stones, before cooking pots and utensils were invented, between 10,000 and 3,000 B.C. Since early cave dwellers usually kept a fire burning to scare away predators, how easy to just whip up a batch of cave man pancakes while they were at it?

Many countries have their own version. Listed below are just a few.

These versions are generally sweet:

Crepes (French)

Pfannkuchen (Dutch or German)

Dosa (India)

Tiganites (Greek)

Apam Balik (Malaysia)

Pannekoeke (South Africa)

These versions are usually served with vegetables or meats:

Latkes (Jewish)

Cong you bing (Chinese)

Uttapam (India)

Blini (Eastern Europe, Russia)

Kimchi pancakes (Korea)

Cachapas (South America)

So don’t limit yourself to just our popular pancakes. Experiment and enjoy the many versions of other countries and discover delicious new variations at any meal. Pancakes. They’re not just for breakfast anymore.

Author Dale Phillip is an avowed pancake lover, and her favorite kind is buttermilk, closely followed by pumpkin (scrumptious). Admittedly pretty traditional in her topping choices (maple syrup or jam), she has ventured out many times to explore other types, including potato pancakes, Chinese pancakes and her own homemade corn cakes. She invites you to visit her many other articles on the history of foods and drinks.

You can visit her blog at:

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