A reader who volunteers at a historical site writes, “A common statement made by docents is that the cornmeal cakes eaten by slaves are called hoecakes because slaves used their hoes as baking implements when they were out in the fields working. This, however, implies that fires were kept burning in the tobacco fields in order for this cooking to take place. Clarify, please.”
I clarified this back in 2010, saying that this was the actual origin of the term “hoe cake.” That turned out to be a mistake, one that Rod Cofield, director of Historic London Town, MD, pointed out. I revised the post then, and will summarize here.
First, a hoe cake is cornbread fried in fat and cooked over a fire. (That doesn’t mean fires were kept burning in the fields, however.) Fields were often located far from the slave quarters and rather than trudge back for the noon meal, it must often have been easier to build a small fire at the edge of a field, cook some cornbread, and find a piece of shade to rest and eat. Hoes were flat iron tools and could easily double as a griddle.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term hoe cake first appears in printed form in 1745. Washington Irving mentions hoe cakes at least twice in his satirical History of New-York (1809): Philip Vickers Fithian mentions it in his journals from the 1770s; and British soldier in the 1770s refers to cornbread: “Negroes bake it on hoes that they work with.” WIth that evidence, I thought I was on solid ground in saying that this was the origin of the term. Nope.
But like the word “sad” in sadirons, the word “hoe” has another, older meaning. It is an obsolete word for griddle or peel, like this one:
The word “hoe cake” came not from the practice of cooking cornbread on agricultural hoes (which clearly did happen), but from griddle hoes. As Mr. Cofield states, “From a naming standpoint, the term hoe used for a cooking implement as early as the 1670s strongly suggests that when colonists baked a mixture of Indian corn (or wheat) and liquid on a peel or griddle, this food item became known as a hoe cake. The name stuck even when a hoe cake was cooked in a skillet or pan.”
Yes, enslaved laborers (and white laborers too, no doubt) did cook cornmeal on agricultural hoes, but that isn’t the origin of the word hoe cake.
With Rod’s permission, I’m directing you to his impeccably researched and documented article, “How the Hoe Cake (Most Likely) Got Its Name.” It was published in 2008 in Food History News. It even has illustrations! It’s long, but it’s worth every minute. If I sound impressed, it’s because I am.