Growing, catching, finding and making according to local seasonal conditions gives homegrown food its “ground truth”, a profound connection with a place. These foods are usually tastiest and are best enjoyed close to the source. This is true everywhere. Here in South County the preservation of jonnycakes, our most iconic food identity, is quite literally in the hands of one man.
Old-time Swamp Yankee Bob Smith feels the stone-ground cornmeal spilling out of the wooden spout at Carpenter’s Grist Mill for texture. Sharp-witted and spry at 86, this living bit of history is tougher than the whitecap flint “co-ahn” that has been ground there in Perryville between water-powered, one-pass granite stones every year since 1703.
His toughness might be ascribed in some small part to his 60 combat missions in a B-17 Flying Fortress over Nazi occupied France and Holland a lifetime ago. Many was the day when 30 or more of the 120 planes that departed in the morning did not return. After completing his service, Bob enrolled at URI. One day he offered an attractive young woman a ride up the hill in his Dodge coupe. Diane will tell you, “He says he picked me up hitchhiking!!”
Their love of local history led Bob and Diane to purchase and restore the neglected mill in 1986. Recently the Smiths bequeathed the mill to the South Kingstown Land Trust. Now they are training a new generation to take it over. On this day, as always, Bob and two apprentice millers grind the same corn given to early European settlers by native Wampanoag people when the newcomers’ imported wheat and barley crops failed. Hard and inedible raw, flint corn is ground into a highly nutritious meal with a subtle nutty flavor found nowhere else in the world.
Mixed into a meal and cooked on a hot stone, these unleavened “journey cakes” traveled well in the days before refrigeration. Flint corn thrives along our south shore due to the moist night air and mild tempering effect of Block Island Sound. Flint corn is tough. Each plant puts out a single ear, instead of the three to four on modern varieties, but each kernel is full of flavor and concentrated nutrients. To keep its line uncontaminated by stray pollen from hybrids it needs to be grown at least a half mile away from other corn. Only two local farmers still grow it.
The long thin golden ears are harvested in late fall and stored outdoors over the winter in covered slat-sided corn cribs where the moisture content drops from 25% down to 10%-12%. Grinding commences in the spring. A gate-operated sluiceway channels pond water three feet deep to produce enough power to turn the 2000-pound rotating top stone at 100 revolutions per minute. Bob turns the screw-crank on an overhead hoist to lift the great runner stone a few thousandths of an inch above the stationary bedstone below. They must never touch.
With bright twinkling eyes, he notes how the 13″-thick top stone, dated 1868, originally measured 18″ thick !! “Some kids must have 5 inches of granite in their bellies”, he hypothesizes with a chuckle. Bob goes on to emphasize the importance of the miller’s vigilant attention.
He must watch and listen for the sight and sound of its proper turning, wary of the trace smell when too much friction might scorch the meal. The old saying “Keep your nose to the grindstone” originally referred to this task before becoming a generic term for drudgery. The dedicated work of the artisan does not translate into the world of technology….
Jonnycakes have survived centuries of vigorous debate here in “Li’l Rhody”. East Bay cooks prefer a thinner “lacy” batter made with cold milk. The Smiths (and your author) will go to our graves clinging to the thicker West Bay style with its golden crust and creamy polenta-like interior. The proper South County jonnycake gains it ascendance by scalding the meal with boiling water and thinning it slightly with a little milk. Silver-dollar sized dollops are dropped onto well-seasoned cast-iron that has had a recent encounter with bacon. Please no sugar or maple syrup – “yah cah’nt taste the co’ahn, boy !!” Not just for breakfast, these thicker cakes make a splendid companion for savory dishes like chicken and gravy or creamed cod with spinach and onions.
The halls of the State House have echoed over the years with contentious exchanges relating to this greatly loved little disc, reminiscent of the millstone so instrumental in its production. Representatives Boyd of Portsmouth and Caswell of Narragansett nearly came to blows in 1922 over claims relating to THE definitive recipe. Scurrilous defamation passed back and forth. “Newport hick feed !!” “South County mush !!” The combatants were eventually separated and a draw was declared, though the friendly rivalry continues to this day.
In a rare fit of common sense, the Rhode Island State Legislature enacted one of the country’s great legal protections regarding the appellation of a local food tradition. It was decided by a vote that Jonnycake meal may only bear the charming countrified spelling, without the “h”, if it is made from corn grown and stone-ground right here in Rhode Island. Long live “truth in labeling !!”