by David Cecelski
The only place I know that serves anything called a “hoe cake” anymore is in a convenience store in Person County. Located on US 501 south of Roxboro, the convenience store is called King Bee #4 and the hoe cake makers call their little business Granny B’s Biscuits and Hoe Cakes, after the first owner’s grandmother, Luna Bell. They occupy a kitchen in the back of the convenience store.
The name “hoe cake” probably originated in the 18th century, but the tradition of making them is much older. Native Americans were making them when European ships first reached these shores, and the early English colonists first learned to make hoe cakes from the coastal Algonquians who lived between here and the Chesapeake Bay.
Algonquian cooks made the cornbread delicacies with a thick batter of just cornmeal and hot water. They made them into flat patties and baked them on rocks over an open fire. Originally, the early colonists did the same in their fireplace hearths, though eventually most used griddles and frying pans.
Along with Indian-style corn mush (boiled cornmeal, pure and simple) hoe cakes became an important staple in early American cookery. They made up an especially large part of the slave diet before the Civil War. Many 19th-century cookbooks say that the name “hoe cake” came from field hands baking their cornbread over open fires on the flat blades of their hoes, but nobody seems to know for sure.
Now and then, I still meet elderly cooks who make the old-fashioned hoe cakes with just cornmeal, hot water, and salt. I do it myself sometimes, too: I made the ones in the photo above just the other night, and I like to cook them especially when I’m out in the woods. I use a recipe that calls for a cup of cornmeal and a ½ teaspoon of salt for every cup of hot water.
Most people gussy up their hoe cakes these days. They usually like to add some combination of butter, eggs, sugar, leavening, milk or buttermilk to the batter. Those recipes blur the lines between a “hoe cake” and a biscuit and a pancake, and nowadays the meaning of a “hoe cake” can differ even from one community to the next.
In some places, local cooks have even stopped using cornmeal in their hoe cakes. Their efforts turn out breads resembling very large, flat biscuits. That’s how they are at Granny B’s, too. It’s not a recent thing, either. Based on what the crowd of elderly customers at Granny B’s told me this morning, that’s what people in that part of Person County have called hoe cakes all their lives.
Instead of eating those hoe cakes doused with molasses, honey, or jam, like we do the Indian-style hoecakes, these are made for filling with bacon, fatback, country ham, butter, or maybe a fried egg. They’re good, though, and they fill you up: Granny B’s hoe cakes make ordinary biscuits look feeble and paltry.
If you want to try that local version of hoe cakes, you can find Granny B’s at 5488 Durham Road (US 501), 5 miles south of Roxboro. They’re only open for breakfast—after breakfast, they cede their kitchen, tables, and take-out window to a Japanese restaurant called the Tokyo Grill.
If you’re in that part of Person County this Saturday, February 19, you might want to drop by the annual Brunswick stew dinner at the Timberlake Volunteer Fire Department. It’s at 350 Ashley Road in the little community of Timberlake. To get there, turn east off the Durham Road (US 501) ontoHelena-Moriah Road, then right onto Ashley. The firefighters will start serving at 11 AM and you can eat there or get stew to take home.