Johnny Cakes | Matt the Civil War Chef

Hardin County, Tennessee April, 1862

My darling Krisanthemum,

Forgive the delay between my last letter and this, for it has been a long and arduous few months. The great forces behind this dreadful conflict are amassing in greater numbers and we all fear that things are only going to get worse. There is a young man I observed on the side of the Confederacy that seems to do nothing but write everything down. Everything he sees, everywhere he goes his pen is scribbling away in his journal. He boasts that someday he’ll see the end of this war, write a book, and be remembered forever in the voice of a cagey southern newspaper columnist that doesn’t sound anything like him. This war has barely started and this poor soul is already too far gone in the clutches of wartime madness. I weep for his soul, but there is still much to do.

I’ve spent the time traveling behind the armies and doing my best to keep them fed with as much hardtack as I’m able to make, despite how long each batch takes. I have figured out how to make them with great efficiency, however I fear the men are growing tired of breaking their teeth on tasteless iron-dense crackers that are barely keeping them alive. You’d think that after getting shot at and seeing the very worst of humanity they’d be grateful for my assistance, but I suppose there is no cure for being a rapscallion even in the gravest of circumstances. If I am to continue to provide for these men, I’ll need to try to make something new.

Please know that again my thoughts are with you always my darling, and hope this letter finds you well. As the imminent battles approach us, know my heart and soul belong to you forever. Should my fate require I meet an early end, preserve these letters and pass them on so that our experiences may be learned from and never repeated. Oh and one other thing my darling… in my biopic, don’t ever let me be voiced by Tom Hanks.

With Love and Honor,
Matt the Civil War Chef

After getting the hang of Hardtack, it’s time to move on to a food that people in both the 1860s and present day might actually enjoy. Long before Bisquick and the Saturday morning tradition of flour based pancakes ruled society, Johnny Cakes were used by all units during the Civil War. Again, stressing portability while getting shot and losing appendages by the shipload, Johnny Cakes were a hearty option that could keep you fighting and running all the live long day. It’s due to this commonality and purpose that there’s actually some debate on why they are even called Johnny Cakes to begin with. It’s not nearly as interesting as I first thought, but apparently enough mush-mouthed southerners mispronounced “Journey Cakes” that the name has stuck ever since…..how fascinating. Let’s make some.

Johnny Cakes are thankfully slim on the ingredients: corn meal, salt, sugar, and boiling water. Mixing the components together to make a thick paste, my cast iron pan was greased with bacon fat and set on the stove to approximate a good strong 1862 flame temperature. Quick side note: I’ve purchased my own cast iron skillet/Dutch oven combo thing for all of these articles, as I’m sure my wife (not named Krisanthemum btw) would kill me otherwise for treating her cookware like this. I’ve never cooked anything with bacon grease before, so I have no idea what’s considered too little or too much. Spooning out the batter and making a fairly thick “cake” I notice that the mixture reallllly sucks up the bacon grease. The Civil War Chef would certainly have to employ a “grease boy” while I screw about with trying to flip the cakes, but as no such person was around I had to take matters into my own hands.

Eventually I got the hang of this and was able to really start churning out the cakes. They all ended up being flaky and golden brown, and I was anxious to give these babies a test drive. While they were a little more crumbly that I would’ve liked, the taste was quite nice! I’ve never craved jam in my 31 years on this planet…but for some reason these Johnny Cakes sent me barreling to the pantry to see what sort of preserves we had. While never being a jam user, we for some reason had about 10 jars of various flavors around and ready for spreading (folks, get yourself a spouse with a culinary talent, you’ll be able to take credit for it constantly).Jam and Johnny Cakes were a home run, and even passed the wife test when she sampled them later. These might not have the portability I would have been looking for in 1862, but here in 2019 we’ll even put this into the weekend breakfast rotation!

Two recipes down, and Matt’s food wagon moves on. Times will only get tougher for Americans after this battle of Shiloh, so we may need to get more resourceful. Next time on Matt the Civil War Chef, we take on a dish only made out of pure wartime desperation: sloosh.

Do you have any ideas or suggestions for our Civil War Chef? Shoot us an email and we’ll ration his supplies before his next battle!

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