Johnny Cakes, Leather Britches, Butter Eggs, and Beer: 18th Century Food and Drink in Striking Balance

Benjamin Franklin has been quoted as saying, “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is strength, in water there is bacteria.” There’s one problem with this. Bacteria weren’t called bacteria during Franklin’s life, germ theory wasn’t a thing, and… sigh. My point here is that most everyone during the 18th century refrained from drinking water unless they were certain the water was clean, often called sweet, which it commonly is in Appalachia because the limestone rock acts as a natural filtration system. So making home brew (beer), a common safe drink in the 18th century, especially on the frontier was a necessity if the water supply wasn’t trustworthy.

Yes, I’m talking butter eggs, beer, leather britches, and johnny cakes in this Striking Balance prerelease post though not necessarily in that order.

First world countries, my own included, widely have become too distanced from their food supply. They don’t know where their food derives, how it grows, what’s done to it before purchase. This obviously wasn’t the case in the 18th century, so I had to tackle the subject of food head-on when writing Striking Balance. What did people eat? How was food preserved? What were some favorites? Well, when it comes to drink, beer, of course, liquor commonly in the form of whiskey or a green whiskey called jimmy john, or sometimes, and especially in the summer, ginger beer was in order. What’s ginger beer? A light/ green beer commonly drank in summer that contains, wonder of wonders, ginger and molasses.

BTW, green above means unaged.

If you’re curious as to how ginger beer was made, here’s a link to a video from Townsend’s to help you out.

Early American Ginger Beer – 18th Century Cooking

Johnny Cakes, sometimes called journey cakes, are Ben’s, the main character in Striking Balance, specialty. His secret? A bit of sugar, molasses, or honey, but that’s not what’s used in the traditional 18th-century recipe I share below.

These corn cakes make regular appearances in our house anymore, though I sometimes partially substitute the cornmeal with masa flour to shake things up. I often follow Ben’s idea and add a bit of sugar and forget the cayenne when I use strictly cornmeal. I prefer the cayenne and an added dash of paprika when I use masa but to each their own.

Here’s the recipe in case you’re interested but know that johnny cakes aren’t an exact science, meaning you’ll need to tinker with the amounts depending on the weather, and they’re best cooked on a cast-iron skillet or griddle.

  • 5 cups white cornmeal (not cornmeal mix)
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper or nutmeg or other preferred spice to taste
  • 1 tsp salt or to taste
  • Warm water enough to make mix a pancake-like batter
  • Lard or oil for frying

Directions: Mix dry ingredients well then add water as mentioned above. Heat oil/grease in hot pan and spoon batter into the pan to make cakes. Cook until brown on both sides.

Is this wonderful food? Well, it’s common food for the time period. It’s simple, easy to fix, belly-filling grub, and those cakes are pretty dang good with butter.

So what about butter eggs? (swoon) There’s nothing nutritious about those, and we use plant-based butter because I can’t have dairy, but I adore both the simplicity and taste of butter eggs with a dash of nutmeg on them.

As I said in another post, nutmeg was the 18th-century equivalent of pink Himalayan salt.

Here’s how we make butter eggs in our house.

  • Six large chicken eggs
  • 2 TBSP cream, milk, or water
  • 4 TBSP butter or plant-butter
  • 1-2 pinches nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Place a medium-sized cast-iron skillet to heat on medium heat. Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat with the cream, milk, or water until just mixed. Set aside and cut the butter into the skillet, allowing it to melt barely ¼ of the way before adding the eggs. Let the eggs and butter cook together, untouched for several minutes before gently stirring to loosen the eggs from the bottom of the skillet. Stir every few minutes to scrape the pan until the eggs are cooked, adding the nutmeg, salt, and pepper at the end. Remove from the heat and serve with toasted bread.

These are decadent eggs and if they pick up a bit of iron color from your skillet, all the better. (FYI, these can also be made in a nonstick pan)

Image from Unmasked

Lastly, leather britches are simply green beans dried within their shells. They were commonly strung for drying and named leather britches because the shells resemble leather when dried. Here’s a link that provides a good explanation and example of leather britches cooked.

Have I had failures? Oh, yes. I made sauerkraut and learned that cheating by making it with bagged slaw mix simply doesn’t work. On that note, I will be making a new batch of kraut this week simply because I am persistent and we have three heads of cabbage in our fridge. (Thanks, local CSA [community supported agriculture].) But leather britches? To be honest we planted our pole beans late this year.

Oh, the things I have done in the name of research for this novel. My family has truly suffered. Not… aside from the kraut but even that’s worth another try.

Striking Balance: The Peculiar Making of Beatrice Benjamin Sophia Scott Schnell Gow will be available in both print and ebook formats on 7/21 but is currently available for preorder on Amazon by clicking the cover in the righthand column or from all other major online book retailers including B&N, Apple Books, and Kobo.


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