George Washington certainly knew that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Our country’s first president was an early riser who enjoyed a leisurely morning meal, often eating right at the break of dawn. It was 19th-century historian Washington Irving who wrote that the American icon's "temperate repast" often included "two small cups of tea and three or four cakes of Indian meal (called hoe cakes),” often drenched in honey and butter.
So, what are hoe cakes and why did Washington love them so? Today, on our first president's birthday here’s the story of our founding father’s favorite food.
Quite simply, a hoe cake is, as Slate describes it, “cornbread made minimalist.” The ingredients are as basic as it gets: cornmeal, water and salt. The recipe that Washington liked included egg and yeast as well. With all the elements mixed together, the result looks a lot like pancake batter. Today, hoe cakes are fried in butter or even baked, but in the 18th century, they were rubbed in beef suet (raw beef fat from the kidney and joint areas) and fried. Needless to say, people didn’t monitor their cholesterol quite as closely back then. Served with butter, honey or maple syrup, they were a delicious, hearty start to an 18th-century day.
The prevailing legend is that the hoe cake got its name from slaves, using the tools they had available, frying the cakes on the iron hoes they used in the fields. While this story does invoke a rather industrious image and lends credence to the fact that hoe cakes were a popular food with laborers, slaves and the poor, it is also unlikely. According to historian Rod Cofield's essay “How the Hoe Cake (Most Likely) Got Its Name,” hoe cakes were first invented in 17th-century England. His research uncovered that, colloquially in the UK in the 1600s, “hoe” was another name for “griddle.” It also seems that “hoe” and “griddle” were interchangeable in the early 19th-century South as evidenced by a letter written by Washington’s step-granddaughter Nelly Parke Custis in 1821. Describing how to make her grandfather’s favorite food, “drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south). When done on one side turn the other—the griddle must be rubbed . . . with a piece of beef suet.”
However the fried corn pancake came to have its name, the dish was never considered a delicacy or remotely fancy. In fact, it may have arisen out of necessity. Corn was perhaps Colonial America’s most common crop, with good yields growing in a variety of climates. There was a lot of it and, depending on that season’s wheat yields, it could be the only crop that was plentiful for many mainly agricultural communities. If one were eating a lot of corn, it meant that their other crops weren't doing well. And that was a very bad thing. As described by Betty Fussell in her 2004 book The Story of Corn, in colonial America, cornmeal was not beloved and had a reputation for being "the sad paste of despair.” So 17th- and 18th-century Americans were always trying to find new ways to cook up boring old corn. Frying it in beef fat and topping it with butter and honey is certainly not a bad way to make all that corn go down a bit easier.
While hoe cakes were not strictly a Southern thing—very similar variations of it existed across the colonies with names like ash cake and Johnny cake—Virginians were very proud of their fried cornmeal. In his 1791 work “The Hasty Pudding,” poet Joel Barlow called the hoe cake “fair Virginia’s pride.” Cookbook author (and native Virginian) Elizabeth Lea credited the state as the inventor of the hoe cake. And it was Virginia’s most famous resident George Washington's favorite food.
So, on today, on his birthday, be like George Washington and fry up a batch of hoe cakes, drenched in honey and dripping in beef fat.