When Italy met Outback Australia: Johnny Cakes & Pizze Fritte

It is only fitting that the inspiration behind this website features in it’s debut blog. Let me introduce you to two incredible dishes, so similar, yet have developed across the globe, centuries apart.

To set the scene, I had just made The Big Move from Melbourne to the Aussie outback. Timing was perfect- an introduction to my career in Aboriginal health coincided with Australia’s national celebration for the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples- NAIDOC Day.  Smelling the aromas of fresh dough cooking in the coals, I realised 23 years of my life had been wasted. 

This was my first introduction to Johnny Cakes- technically an American dish made of cornmeal and water. For thousands of years the dish was made by Aboriginal Australians by gathering native seeds, then grinding the whole seed into a flour. Post white settlement, when Aboriginal people were moved from their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one on missions and stations, Australia's fields became filled with wheat crops. This dish was adapted to use white flour and as this required much less effort to make, became a new staple in Aboriginal people's diet. This is one contributor  to their new diet being far inferior to the native foods previously eaten. A diet which has contributed to Aboriginal Australian’s health status being the poorest of any group in Australia, and life expectancy being up to 10 years lower than the overall Australian population. But I digress. Since that first waft, I was hooked.  I’ve since had the privilege of eating Johnny Cakes cooked by many Aboriginal elders. I learnt the hard way that trying to put something other than margarine on it is judged, apart from the occasional honey or golden syrup.  I’ve also come to understand the subtle variations that exist amongst their bread dishes. As a Barkindji woman put it “ Johnny Cakes are cooked on the coals or in a frypan, damper is baked in the oven, and scones have milk added”. 

Pizze Fritte (Fried Pizzas), a dish so similar to this staple, originates from a diet scientifically identified as increasing life expectancy and decreasing heart disease- the Mediterranean Diet. It is also a dish that conjures up memories 1000 miles from the outback. Nonna’s garage (where all good Italian women cook) is a magical place where measurements are never used; like the Aboriginal elders she has a sixth sense for knowing when the dough is ‘just right’. When Nonna first rolled out some dough, poured an overly generous amount of olive oil into a frypan, cooked it until crisp, then sprinkled it with salt- well, she couldn’t make them fast enough. 

So how do two dishes, so similar, represent a far greater divide in diet quality and health outcomes? Frequency is a major factor. It wasn’t until I was a teen that Nonna first poured the oil into the frypan (I still haven’t forgiven her for taking so long). Since then, she will only whip up a batch when my sister and I are there, nagging. Instead, pizza was always covered in homegrown tomatoes, mushrooms, oregano and a little cheese and prosciutto, and baked, making the alternative far more nutritous. Yet a year in the outback has taught me Johnny Cakes are more of an everyday food. Take the elder who today told me she whips up a batch when she can’t sleep at night. Traditionally, when Johnny Cakes were made with native seeds, the effort required and scarcity of the seeds meant the dish was a very occasional and hence special food. Today, elders have been known to never throw bread out because of what this symbolises. So why is having Johnny Cakes every few nights so bad? 

  1. Refined carbohydrates. The brain needs carbohydrates (specifically glucose) to power it. Nothing else can power the brain. So carbohydrates isn’t the dirty word. Refined however, is. This means the wheat has been processed so the outer portion (where you will find most of the fibre and nutrients like B vitamins and minerals), is removed. It also means we digest it quickly, so our blood sugar/glucose levels peak high- AKA the sugar rush. Pre white settlement, the Aboriginals had the right idea- using the whole seed made the dish much more nutritious. However today both of these foods are made with white flour, so the difference doesn’t lie there.
  2. Fat can actually be a saviour. Adding it to a high GI food (one that is rapidly absorbed, like white flour), lowers it's GI (makes it absorbed slower, so there is less of a peak). So the high amount of oil in pizze fritte would have a beneficial effect on the 'sugar rush' compared to the smaller amount of margarine on the Johnny Cakes. But let's look more closely at these two fats...
  3. What’s added (or rather not added). Johnny Cakes are cooked in vegetable oil and have margarine added. Olive oil is the only option for Nonna (one can be easily mistaken in thinking the margarine containers in her fridge contain margarine, not the marinated olives and sun dried tomatoes actually in them). Olive oil’s secret weapon is it’s high amount of monounsaturated fatty acids. Simply, these are a type of fat that helps clear our arteries from the build up caused by saturated fats (saving us from nasties like heart attacks and strokes). Makes sense why the Mediterranean diet is so loved. Margarine, made with vegetable oils like canola and sunflower, has more of the saturated (artery clogging) fats, and much less of the monounsaturated (artery clearing) fats.  A small difference, but it adds up.  

With that in mind, I invite you to try something new, and make your own mind up. They are both delicious introductions to two completely different, yet equally enchanting cultures.

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