Historians believe that the pancake, with its common, readily available ingredients and simple cooking methods, was one of man’s first foods. To this day, nearly every society in the world serves its variation of the simple flapjack. Even one of America’s founding fathers, George Washington, was a connoisseur. And we have the recipe to prove it. Dr. Libby O’Connell, HISTORY’s chief historian (and not so secret foodie) shares the story behind Washington’s love of pancakes and provides some recipes that you can try out on your own. It's time for Lunch with Libby (or in this case, breakfast). Bon Appétit!
The Story of Washington’s Hoe Cakes
George Washington and I share the same birthday, so even as a child I was a fan. He and his wife, Martha, entertained a steady stream of guests at his lovely home, Mt. Vernon, which isn’t very surprising, since the Washingtons’ table was generously laden with food and imported wine, and perhaps some of the general’s distilled whiskey. Their enslaved butler, Frank Lee, set an elegant table, using the Washingtons’ collection of pristine linens, ivory handled cutlery, and blue and white Chinese dinnerware. Dinner was served promptly at 3 p.m.. According to the scholars at Mt. Vernon today, however, one of Washington’s favorite meals was his daily breakfast: hoe cakes “swimming in butter and honey.” Hoe cakes are essentially colonial cornmeal pancakes. People always chuckle––or at least look askance––when I say, “hoe cake,” as if I’m talking about something promiscuous. Honestly, folks, it’s named that because you could fry them over an open fire on the back of a flat hoe, similar to the farm implement we still use today. Frank Lee’s wife, Lucy, served the Washingtons as cook. Baking powder and baking soda weren’t available in stores until long after Washington died, so the leavening agent in these corn cakes was yeast. Using yeast meant that Lucy would stir up most of the ingredients before bedtime so that the batch would be ready to fry up in time for Washington’s 7 a.m.. breakfast. She probably cooked them in a large frying pan with legs, called a spider, or on a flat griddle actually referred to as a “hoe,” using suet (animal fat) to grease the surface.
The original recipe is still used at Mt. Vernon, one of our national treasures. And, having tasted hot hoe cakes at that historic site, I can testify that they are very tasty–although any hot bread served with lots of butter and honey and a nice cup of tea is pretty sublime. A beautiful new book, Dining with the Washingtons, provides the hoe cake recipe as recorded by Martha Washington’s grand daughter.
I also offer my own variation that should be more manageable for today’s cook. I figure that the Washingtons would have used baking powder if they could, since the General approved of modern innovations like that. However, using white cornmeal (instead of the more common yellow corn meal) makes a difference, so unless you live south of the Mason-Dixon line, you might have to look around for this key ingredient. Today, most pancake recipes call for sugar. If you would rather exchange authenticity for flavor, you can add 2 tablespoons light brown sugar to the dry ingredients, but really, if you are serving these with honey, why bother with sugar? Also the original batter does not include any shortening, but uses butter very generously before serving. Remember, Washington was 6’4” and lead a very active life, even in retirement. All that butter didn’t seem to do him any harm, although he didn’t spend much time online.
Authentic Washington’s Hoe Cakes
Makes about 4 servings and takes 35 minutes, plus at least 8 hours and 20 minutes for resting the batter. (Just be glad you don’t have to keep the fire going while you’re at it! I’ve done that too, and it takes tending.)
½ teaspoon active dry yeast
2 ½ cups white cornmeal
3-4 cups lukewarm water
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten
Melted butter for drizzling and serving
Honey or maple syrup for serving
In a large bowl, mix the yeast with 11/4 cups cornmeal, then pour in 1 cup warm water, and combine thoroughly. Now stir in ½ cup more water. The mixture should be like pancake batter. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.
Are you awake? Ready to finish the hoe cakes?
Preheat oven to 200 degrees F and have a nice platter or large plate ready. This is so you can keep the first hoe cakes warm while you prepare the rest of the batter.
Add ½ to 3/4-cup lukewarm water to the batter, stir well, and cover bowl with a damp towel. Let rest for about 20 minutes.
Heat griddle to medium high and grease with lard, bacon fat or other shortening. Drop a scant ¼ cup of batter on the griddle, and cook on one side until brown. Flip the hoe cake to brown on the other side. Place on platter, drizzle with a little butter and put platter in the warm oven. Add each hoe cake as it is finished so that you have a nice pile, each one drizzled with butter, to place on the table. Serve with melted butter and honey or maple syrup.
My Modern Hoe Cakes
Makes about 4 servings and takes about 20 minutes.
1 ½ cup white cornmeal
½ cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/3 cups milk
2 tablespoons canola oil, or melted butter – especially if General Lafayette is dropping by for breakfast.
Butter, if desired, and honey or jam for serving
In a large bowl, stir all of the dry ingredients together. (This is essentially your own hoe cake mix, and it keeps in a sealed container or zippered plastic bag for a long time.) In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and stir in the milk and shortening. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir well. You can add a little more milk if the batter is too thick. It should be the consistency of any pancake batter.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees F, and have a nice platter or large plate ready. This is so you can keep the first hoe cakes warm while you prepare the rest of the batter
Drop by scant ¼ cup (I use a soup ladle) onto a lightly greased hot griddle. Turn when bubbles form on the top of each hoe cake. Add each hoe cake to the platter and keep warm in the low oven. I like to warm our individual plates at the same time, especially in the winter. Serve with butter and honey, molasses or maple syrup.