Thornton Simmons sometimes loses his r's. They roll into words like flavor and over the way the water on his mill pond skims down the turbine wheels, round and down. Simmons is a New Englander through and through: he claims ancestors working as millers in the Little Compton area as far back as 1621. He says the work comes naturally to him—that he has cornmeal in his blood.
Simmons is the miller at Gray's Grist Mill—a small, stone-grinding operation with a property boundary so old it was cut in half when Massachusetts ceded the area to Rhode Island in 1747. The mill pond lies mainly in Adamsville, Rhode Island, while across the street, the mill house stands firmly on Westport ground. It's been turning out cornmeal for over three hundred years.
As for the corn, it's Narragansett white flint corn Simmons grinds. The handful of farmers who still grow it say it's a testy strain—two ears to a stalk, eight rows on a cob, hard and dense and slow to dry. But something about the climate, the soil, and the ancient granite stone Simmons uses to grind it down makes it worth it. You used to be able to mortgage your house on this cornmeal, Simmons likes to say.
Over the years, the mill has been powered by all sorts of things: water, a dodge truck motor, a tractor with a power belt, electricity. Maybe, if Simmons gets his way, the mill will be able to go back to water again. The trouble with property straddling two states is that it can make digging out an old mill pond awfully hard: there are two Conservation Commissions, two sets of regulations, two bodies of law to contend with. Simmons has to get it done, though—even with a deep pond, the water build-up will only ever be enough to run the mill for four hours before it needs to rest, fill up again.
The mill is one of the oldest continuous grist mills in the country. The water runs under the mill house, from a man made pond dammed from the west branch of the Westport River, running down from Tiverton. Simmons says there used to be a lot of dam wars—someone upriver hoarding water, the miller downstream with a dry, slack pond. When the water did come, it ran the turbines that turned the stone. Dried, shucked corn went down through the hopper into a feed shoot called the shoe. A stick straddling the stone called a damsel hit the shoe and knocked the corn into the eye of the stone—you need speed in the feed, as Simmons says. Once a year or so the 56-inch diameter granite stone needs to be dressed—roughed up to keep it sharp. Granite is best for cornmeal, french burr for wheat and rye.
However it's ground, Simmons has no doubt about how to eat cornmeal: jonnycakes. These thin, lacy cornmeal pancakes are the ones Rhode Islanders and people from southeastern Massachusetts have been padding with butter and a little drizzle of maple syrup for years. They're simple food, but hearty—honest in a way that makes you taste the corn, the water, the land.
They're easy—just cornmeal, water, and milk—and you fry them in a hot, black iron skillet. The batter sort of dances when it hits the pan, quivering out, flattening into a thin disk with tiny eyelets all around the edge. To get any satisfaction you need a stack—five, six, seven thin cakes with crispy edges and a swath of butter and hot maple syrup running down. Simmons says he likes to serve his with cranberries, so the other morning, I made up a batch with a side of thinly sliced pears and cranberries, sauteed until soft with butter and a little bit of cinnamon. The combination was just right—sweet maple cutting tart berries, soft pears atop crisp corn. I guess that's no surprise; it's simply what you get with four hundred years of cornmeal passed on down the line.
This recipe is for thin jonnycakes—if you like the thick kind, head on over here. An important note about stone-ground cornmeal: keep it in the freezer or refrigerator. Because the stone-grinding process doesn't grind out the corn kernel's germ, or nutrient packed embryo, left out the cornmeal will spoil quickly.
2 cups stone ground cornmeal
a generous pinch of salt
3/4 cup cold water
1 and 1/2 cups milk
oil for frying
Whisk together the cornmeal and salt in a medium size mixing bowl. Pour in the water and stir until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the milk, adding a bit more if needed to make a thin, pourable batter.
Warm up a griddle or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Spoon a tablespoon or so of oil into the pan, and let it get hot. Then, taking care to stir the batter (the cornmeal quickly settles), spoon out about two tablespoons of batter onto the pan for each cake. They should thin out and dance as they hit the pan, forming a thin disk.
Cook for several minutes, or until golden brown and lacy on the bottom side, then flip. They won't need so long on the second side—only a minute or so. Serve hot, with butter, maple syrup, and if you like, sauteed apples or pears with cranberries.