How ‘the sad paste of despair’ became a celebrated delicacy
The only challenging thing about hoecakes is explaining to the uninitiated what they are. They look like pancakes but they’re not pancakes.
“A hoecake is cornbread made minimalist — a thin, unleavened round made from the simplest batter (cornmeal, water and salt), crisp at the edges, glistening on both sides from the fat it was fried in, golden in patches,” wrote Emily Horton in a July 2014 article for Slate. “Inside, it’s dense but creamy, a foil for its best partners — creamed corn, silky braised greens, honey.”
It’s a myth that the name comes from field workers using hoes to cook the hoecakes. “Hoe” is a colloquial term for a form of griddle that dates back to the 1600s in England. In “The Story of Corn,” Betty Fussell writes that early colonial cooks found cornmeal, as opposed to wheat flour, difficult to work with and called cornmeal batter, “the sad paste of despair.” Over time, this paste became a source of regional pride, food writers note.
1 cup finely ground white or yellow cornmeal (best available)
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons frying oil or bacon grease
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons boiling water
Combine cornmeal and salt. Whisk in boiling water. Let rest 10 minutes.
Stir in 1 tablespoon of oil. The mixture should be pourable but thick enough that you need a spoon or spatula to spread it out. If it seems too thick, add a tablespoon or two of hot water.
Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the skillet or griddle over medium heat. Cook until the hoecake is golden around the edges and the center looks set. Flip it over and cook until golden. Time will vary based on the size of the hoecake.
This recipe will make 2, 6-inch or 4, 3-inch hoecakes. Serve warm.
Phil Newton is a Galveston baker/cook. He’s the owner/operator of Stiglich Corner with partner Cindy Roberts.