There are times when one should really step back and take a moment to reflect on all the things that one takes for granted. Like reliable rainfall that nourishes our country’s farms and waters their stock. A stable government headed by a sensible, democratically elected leader. That a grown adult would never in their right mind voluntarily head to Coles for a toy product swap meet. Or, the simple truth that no matter which pub you wander into in this unpredictable country of ours, you’re pretty much guaranteed a cold beer and a chicken parmigiana if you ask nicely for them.
Food trends come and go. These days if you’re hankering for a parmy down at the local you’re likely to find it tucked away in the ‘Classic Pub Grub’ section, the rest of the menu dominated by suspiciously hipster fare. A selection of tacos or sliders, buffalo wings with blue cheese sauce or perhaps a jerk chicken burger with a side of Southern slaw served up on a board, a piece of slate or inside a gentleman’s hat. I don’t even fully understand what ‘jerk’ is, unless of course you’re referring to that fellow with the head like a russet potato who very nearly became PM last week.
Contrast this to my university days when about the most exotic thing you could hope for between rounds of pool was a bowl of potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chilli sauce (which says as much about my age as it does about the gastronomic creativity of pub kitchens in the late 90s). Having said that, if you wanted to take a seat in the bistro you could count on a parmy and chips to give you enough legs to keep on drinking.
Scooch back in time a little bit further to the era of double denim, mullets and frizzy perms and you might head for a parmagiana ‘counter meal’ at your local after work, or pop in for Sunday roast lunch for your choice of meat with three veg and gravy.
But lets go back even further than that, way back to the origins of the what has been the most popular bird on the public bar menu for longer than you may think.
Our story begins in the early 1400s in either Naples, Calibria, Sicily or the general Campanian countryside. I’d love to be more specific but temperatures tend to run a little high when trying to pinpoint the precise locale. Each region has what appears to be a fairly legitimate claim to the crown, usually due to a dialectical term that ‘parmigiana’ could likely be derived from, and much energy and emotion has been invested into defending these claims. (Try imagine the Italian World Cup football team appealing unsuccessfully for a penalty in a semi final and you’re pretty much there.)
As the original parmy pipped the moveable type printing press by a couple of decades (and even then publishers tended to prefer Bibles to cookbooks as Jesus was incredibly popular at the time and Jamie Oliver hadn’t been invented yet) recorded evidence remains vague. The one fact that IS generally accepted though is that the original parmy didn’t contain chicken or indeed any meat at all, no matter where it came from.
Traditionally the Parmigiana di Melanzane was an eggplant dish, a veggie that had arrived centuries earlier via the Middle East, and remained so until it migrated from Italian shores to the Americas during the post-war exoduses of the 1920s and 50s. The very earliest versions didn’t even come with a tomato-based sauce; tomatoes were brought from Peru around the 17th century and, as members of the nightshade family, were quite legitimately regarded with suspicion. Instead, a combination of parmesan cheese, oil and a creamy sauce derived from egg yolks was used to complete the dish, and the first such mention of it appeared in an original text, Il Saporetto by Simone Prudenzani in the mid 1400s.
Tomatoes took their time in the popularity stakes, but by the late 1700s the flavours of our more familiar parmy began to develop. According to Clifford Wright, the somewhat flamboyantly described “reigning Englishspeaking expert on culinary culture of the Mediterranean”, the modern tomato-based eggplant version of the dish first appeared in print in Naples in 1837. And so the original parmy remained for the time in southern Italy; here it fed another few generations or so of locals until the ugly theatre of war drove it west towards Ellis Island.
The Godfather: Part II
Sorry everyone, but we’re not heading Down Under just yet. Just like everything else that becomes suddenly fashionable in Australia (and a bit later, Darwin) i.e. CrossFit, Olivia Newton-John and expressions like “Eat my shorts” or “Netflix and chill”, parmys were cool in America long before they reached our sandy shores.
So, back to Lady Liberty and the great Mediterranean migration. As the Italian immigrants flooded to the United States in the wake of two World Wars, the eggplant swiftly fell out of favour due to its infamiliarity with locals, lack of availability and, as some cynics may suggest (myself included), excellent nutritional content.
The shift in ingredients not only highlighted the American penchant for hearty, filling and nutritionally dubious food, but also postwar affordability and indulgence. Towards the end of 1945, as the rest of the world staggered to its feet, dusted itself off and had a look around at its crippled infrastructure and economies, the USA was largely unblemished and thus perfectly poised to become Supreme Master of the Universe.
In 1951 the average American ate fifty per cent more food a week than his European counterpart. FIFTY PER CENT. Just think about that for a moment. What’s more, they could afford not just to eat more, but eat better and choose from more variety than anyone on rations could hope to dream of.
Meat in particular was irresistibly inexpensive in America. The Italian migrants that settled in New York took advantage of the new found bounty and began swapping traditional vegetables for meat where they could. By the late 50s the eggplant parmigiana had all but vanished; it was the new chicken version that began appearing on menus of Italian restaurants around the city. The new Americans had abandoned a dish that had been passed from generation to generation, steeped in tradition, local produce and revered for its simple, delicate flavours. Instead, to appeal to the local palette it had been stuffed with meat and cheese and robbed of any kind of subtle flavour. Kind of like when NBC tried to remake Kath & Kim for the American market, except that this actually worked.
Unfortunately as it evolved, the ‘chicken parmesan’, or simply the chicken parm, was rolled, sliced, creamed and stuffed into sandwiches, steaming bowls of pasta, pie crusts and almost anything else you can imagine bar ice-cream. So lets leave these abominations behind us and head at last for the southern hemisphere.
The Buzzard of Oz
As Territorians we know we have twentieth century migration to thank for our culinary diversity. Whether you were NT born and bred, digging 1c coins from down the back of the corduroy couch so you could buy a handful of salty plums from the tuckshop, a long-term patron of the Greek Glenti or a recent arrival who is yet to decide whether Mary or Yati have won your laksa loyalty, it’s easy to take our varied cuisine for granted.
As the Italians began to arrive Australia in the 50s and 60s, bringing decent coffee and an unprecedented appreciation for garlic bread and ornate furniture, lamb was still the meat of choice for most Australians. That is until prices began to rise, and red meat gradually fell out of favour. Chicken overtook lamb in the popularity stakes in the mid-70s and eventually pipped beef, king of protein in the noughties. The chicken parmy had cemented itself in Australian culinary cuisine. Having said that, despite our enthusiasm we’re rather on par with our American friends when it comes to not being a hundred per cent faithful to nuances of Italian cuisine.
Pizza varieties as we enjoy them today are all bastardised versions of the two only ‘pure’ Italian pizzas, marinara and margherita. (Trust me, the Medici’s weren’t lounging about the Sistine Chapel watching Michelangelo paint the ceiling while munching on a Meatball Stuffed Crust from Dominos.) We’ve even corrupted the absurdly simple and common spag bol by omitting pork and pancetta and using red wine instead of white.
But back to chicken. A lot has happened since the bird became Australia’s numero uno meat of choice, particularly when it comes to pushing the parmy topping envelope. As we mentioned earlier, food trends come and go so and there’s never been a better time to buy a parmagiana, so why not try one topped with bolognese and basil sauce? Or, if you’re a fan of pineapple on a pizza, how about a Hawaiian parmy decorated with chunks of Golden Circle? The original already has ham on it so you’re already halfway there …
Aussie versions I’ve seen sport rashers of bacon topped with a jaunty-looking fried egg, and most recently I enjoyed Ski Club’s French variation that comes smothered in a rich and creamy garlic sauce. Local FB group Chicken Parmys of Darwin featured Dolly’s Chicken Parmy Pizza earlier in the year, a dish so exciting it solicited 689 comments. And every rural tavern from here to Alice is good for an old fashioned counter meal should you be making the long trip south.
So if you’re driving around the NT this month looking to tuck in to what we Aussies have (like Phar Lap, pavlova and Crowded House*) dubiously claimed as our own, be sure to pick a venue that’s supporting Parma for a Farmer. Because much like we shouldn’t take the parmy, parmi or parma for granted, nor should we the food on our plate.
*I think we all agree that America is welcome to keep Mel Gibson though, yes?