A fresh cup of coffee and hot breakfast, like most other things in New Enlgand, come with a long history, especially if your griddle-compainion of choice are jonnycakes. These sweet little cakes are made from ground corn meal, a tradition that dates back to colonial New England when travelers would fill small knapsacks with the ground meal as food for a long journey. Some think a variation of spelling over time is what started the name jonnycakes, but others remain skeptical. Even Gray’s can’t say for sure where the namecomes from, but what they do know is that Rhode Island is (or should be) the only place to get the goods. Started over 300 years ago, Gray’s Grist Mill is still grinding this Rhode Island breakfast staple, celebrating a tradition that intrigues and delights rhody locals and neighbors alike.
Thorton Simmons and wife Mary now operate this historic mill/museum located on the thin line between Westport, MA and Adamsville, RI. Recently mentioned on the Today Show, the famous mill has gone through several owners since it’s first documented ownership in 1717, and each has been devoted to the outstanding preservation of this once-mainstream occupation. Long ago, (centuries really) grist mills were the thing. Each town had it’s own, and each mill provided livelihood to the growing populations. Today grist mills are as rare as people like Thorton and Mary who devote their time to the history and labor. However, with the help of a few modern accessories like an electric motor (mills were once powered by water), the work is little lighter. Despite some advances, the mill stands true to its roots; it makes good use of two 1 ½ ton stones to crush corn kernels for one thing.
Narragansett Indian Flint corn, is the corn of choice. This hard-to-grow variation of corn is best nurtured in Rhode Island soil; its uniquely sweet flavor makes for a sweet breakfast, and a proud crop of Rhode Islanders. Rhode Islanders are not the only ones who know a good thing when they see it; chefs and local cafes across the region stock Gray’s jonnycake mix for hungry customers.The best part: the mix ground fresh, is preservative-free making it one of the most all-natural, all-local foods you can get your hands on. The modern miller recommends keeping your mix in the fridge.
Whether your going to get some fresh breafast or to tour the history of the mill, a stop at Gray’s is worth the journey. Thorton even says there’s talk of a coffee shop in the Mill’s future, a chance to make this stop on the FarmCoast a little sweeter.
To get an insider’s perspective on the workings of the oldest New England Grist Mill, and a few delicious recipes, visit www.graysgristmill.com.