How the Hoe Cake (Most Likely) Got Its Name (6 pages)

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Historic London Town and Gardens – How the Hoe Cake Got Its Name

Rod Cofield – May 2008

telling us the hoe is broad and made of iron. Without a thorough description of the hoe, some
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st

-century readers might jump to the conclusion that it is similar to the gardening hoe.

At least two authors do not think so. Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald write that

bread loaves could be baked with a “the use of a hoe or bread peel.”

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Later, they go on to say

that “hoe cake [is] probably derived from the fact that the cakes were baked on flat, hoe-like
paddles.”

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According to them, a hoe is possibly another name for a bread peel. Unfortunately,

because they do not cite a source for this explanation, their book can only act as a tantalizing
clue about what evidence might exist in colonial and other sources concerning hoes as a type of
baking utensil. Fortunately, an oft-quoted letter from Nelly Custis Lewis, a granddaughter of
Martha Washington exists that sheds a bit more light on the situation.

On 7 January 1821, Lewis wrote to a friend in Philadelphia about George Washington’s

fondness for hoe cakes and then described how to cook this “bread business.” Within the letter
she wrote, “drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south).”

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This is

quite an interesting sentence because it indicates that, at least in Virginia and maybe other parts
of the South, the terms ‘hoe’ and ‘griddle’ may be interchangeable. This in turn seems to
provide at least one bit of supporting evidence for the claim that there could be a cooking
instrument called a hoe With this in mind, a piece from Edward Eggleston’s collection of short
stories and tales detailing eighteenth-century Maryland indicates that there was a baking hoe.
While describing a plantation house he wrote “the farther end was the vast, smoke-blackened
stone fireplace, with two large rude andirons… a skillet and a gridiron stood against the jamb on
one side, a hoe for baking hoe cakes and a little wrought-iron trivet were in order on the other.”

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Though he did not describe the hoe, Lewis’ letter demonstrates that this hoe is a baking, not a
gardening, instrument.

In other regions and times, we see two cookbooks from the early 1900s pair the terms hoe

and griddle. Evora Perkins from Massachusetts wrote that a “hoe cake is the [corn] pone mixture
baked on a hoe or griddle….”

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And in Great Britain, S. Beaty-Pownall’s recipe for hoe cake

told the reader to “bake on a hot girdle [griddle] or a ‘hoe.’ Serve hot with a piece of butter on
each. Old [American] Southern coloured cooks made the cakes on their ‘hoes’ at a wooden fire,
whence their name.”

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It is definitely curious to see these terms crop up in a British cookbook.

A question remains though about when the terms ‘hoe’ and ‘griddle’ (or ‘hoe’ and ‘peel’)

became interchangeable. This question is important because if a griddle reminded someone of a
field hoe blade after hoe cakes received their name, then using this one quote to argue that hoe
cakes got their name from being cooked on a baking instrument called a hoe is not a sound
argument. Both more and earlier evidence for making this claim needs to be brought forth.

One aspect of the term hoe cake that needs to be answered is when the first known

reference to the term occurred. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a W. Logan twice
wrote in his 1745 journal that he “breakfasted on Tea and Hoe Cake Bread, which we have done

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Stavely, Keith and Fitzgerald, Kathleen, “America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking,

University of North Carolina Press, United States, 2004, 25.

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Ibid, 34.

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Letter between Nelly Custis Lewis and Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 7 January 1821; original letter owned by the

Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The letter’s provenance was given to the author by Mary Thompson of the
Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

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Eggleston, Edward, Duffels, D. Appleton, New York, 1893, 29.

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Perkins, Evora Bucknum, The Laurel Health Cookery, Laurel Publishing, Massachusetts, 1911, 454.

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Beaty-Pownall, S., The “Queen” Cookery Books: Bread, Cakes, and Biscuits, Vol. XI, Horace Cox, London,

1904, 61.

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