Johnny cakes are ubiquitous in Rhode Island. The cornmeal pancakes are a staple of the popular May Breakfasts, one of the state’s many quirky culinary traditions, and packages of the meal can be found on the shelves of many local supermarkets. Rhode Islanders and their neighbors in Southeastern Massachusetts claim the johnny cake as its own superior version of the common wheat pancake.
Johnny cakes — the name, many claim, comes from “journeycake” because the patties were durable on long trips; others say it’s a derivation of “Shawnee cake” from the tribe — are the featured attraction at Gray’s Grist Mill, one of the oldest continually operating grist mills in New England. A mill has operated on the same site, at the intersection of Adamsville, R.I., and Westport, Mass., since 1675. Gray’s Grist Mill was built there in 1878; Philip S. Gray purchased it in 1880, and for the next 100 years, two millers, Roland Grayton Hart and his son, John Hart, kept it operating.
A frequent visitor to the mill was Ralph Guild, a Westport summer resident. When John Hart, at 80, decided in 1980 to retire from milling after 62 years, he sold the business to Guild with the stipulation that it continue to operate as a working mill.
Part of the building is now Gray’s Daily Grind, a popular coffee shop with chairs outside the small mill, so plenty of visitors sipping lattes often poke their heads into the barn-like structure next door. They’ll find ancient equipment that shells the corn from its cob then grinds it into meal, all presided over by miller George Whitley, who’s there most days or available by appointment. He’ll happily stop grinding to share the history of the mill and the johnny cake and demonstrate the equipment. It’s a safe bet that few millers of the past so easily mixed details about sharpening a grinding stone with references to Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” and Betty Fussell’s “The Story of Corn.”
“I always say, this is not really a job; it’s more of a calling,” says Whitley, who embraces the role as if born to it. A Newport native with a background in house restoration, Whitley came on board in 2015 when the previous miller, Thornton Simmons, retired. “I knew nothing about it,” Whitley says, admitting that Gray’s Grist Mill was just a place he’d pass on his way to the beach. But as a restorer and handyman, he “understood old things” which is a requirement for working with milling gears and 2½-ton granite millstones that date to 1878. Even though electricity long ago replaced water power, the gears need frequent maintenance and Whitley has to dress the stone and sharpen it at least once a year, using the traditional dressing tools that hang on a wall of the mill.
Since education and preservation are the mandates at Gray’s, Whitley not only grinds, packages, stores, and sells the cornmeal, he conducts tours of the mill and keeps up an active presence on social media.
There’s a longstanding difference of opinion about true johnny cake corn, Whitley says. Gray’s uses only Flint corn, a hard (hence the name) white corn grown on the southern coast of Rhode Island. Flint corn is indigenous from the Pequot tribe of Connecticut and the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Flint corn is no longer cultivated in large quantities because of its low yield — only 12 tons to an acre — and because it has little use besides johnny cakes. Dent corn yields nearly twice as much and has other uses, so it makes sense why farmers prefer to grow Dent corn and why other grist mills in Rhode Island use Dent corn for johnny cake meal. But there’s another major difference: The corn may taste the same — again, an arguable point — but the dispute reached an official conclusion many decades ago that stipulated that only meal from Flint corn can boast the imprimatur of “Rhode Island” johnny cakes.
After the long stalks of Flint corn are shelled, Whitley pours 100 to 150 pound of kernels into the hopper and the grinding begins. The process takes two hours, more or less, he says, as the kernels pass from the hopper through the shoe and into the center opening of the granite millstones, thanks to a vertical rod called a damsel that shakes the grain. One disc-shaped, 15-inch thick stone remains stationary while the other turns. The friction grinds the kernels into meal which spills from a spout onto a mesh screen where Whitley watches, constantly sifting, and examining to make sure it’s optimal for his meal. (He’ll custom grind for customers who prefer a grittier meal.)
Compared with other area grist mills, Gray’s is a small operation. Whitley sells 100 to 150 pounds of meal each week, a bit more in summer, to loyal customers, specialty food markets, and boutiques, to Boston’s Formaggio Kitchen, and online. Gray’s is more living history museum than a high profit venture, he says.
Besides the debate over Flint versus Dent corn, there has long been a local controversy about whether authentic Rhode Island johnny cakes are made with water for thick cakes or milk for thinner, smaller cakes. Gray’s stays out of the fray by including both recipes on its packages of cornmeal. Its mission, after all, is simply to spread the gospel of johnny cakes and to preserve a beloved local tradition, though thick and thin.
For more information go to www.graysgristmill.com.