Johnnycake’s Journey (A British and American Folk Tale)
Once, an old man, an old woman, and a little boy lived in a house at the edge of the woods. One lovely summer morning, the old woman prepared a Johnnycake and popped it in the oven to bake. Then she turned to the little boy and said, “You watch the cake while your father and I go out to the garden.”
The old man and woman went outside and began to tend their lettuce and onions, their tomatoes and beans and corn. The little boy stayed inside, but he didn’t pay much attention to the oven. He was too busy playing with his toys.
Suddenly the boy heard a loud pop, and when he looked up, he saw the oven door open. “Oh my,” the boy said, but before he could say another word, that Johnnycake jumped out of the oven and began to roll across the room.
“Wait right there,” the boy called, but before he could reach the cake, it had rolled out the front door. The little boy ran after that cake, but before he could catch it, the cake had rolled down the front steps, through the yard and out into the road. The boy ran as fast as he could, chasing after that Johnnycake and calling out to his mother and father, “Catch that Johnnycake!”
His mother and father looked up, and when they saw the Johnnycake rolling down the road, they began to run after it. But the Johnnycake was fast, and before you can count, one, two, three, he was out of sight, and the old man and the old woman and the little boy sat down to catch their breath.
On rolled the Johnnycake, right down the road. Before long he passed two men who were digging a well. One of the men looked up and asked, “Where are you off to in such a hurry, Johnnycake?”
“I outran the old man and the old woman and the little boy too, and I’ll outrun you,” said the Johnnycake.
“We’ll see about that,” the well-digger said because he wasn’t too happy to hear a Johnnycake talking that way. Both well-diggers threw down their picks and chased after the Johnnycake, but he was too fast for them, and before long they had to stop to rest.
Pretty soon that Johnnycake passed a mother bear who was just waking up from a nap. “Where are you running so fast?” Mother Bear asked the speedy Johnnycake.
“I’ve outrun the old man and the old woman and the little boy and the well-diggers,” Johnnycake said, “and I’ll outrun you, too.”
“Oh you will, will you?” the mother bear said, and she began to run because she didn’t like the notion of a Johnnycake faster than she, but before long that Johnnycake was far away in the woods, and the mother bear had to stop to catch her breath.
Now the Johnnycake passed a wily wolf who called out, “What’s your hurry, Johnnycake?”
“I’ve outrun the old woman and the old man and the little boy and the well-diggers and the mother bear, and I’ll outrun you, too,” Johnnycake said haughtily.
“We’ll just see about that,” the wily wolf said, and he began to chase that Johnnycake because the wolf did not like proud cakes.
Well, you guessed it. Before long that wily wolf was exhausted, and he had to stop chasing the cake.
Now the Johnnycake was deep in the woods, and he happened to pass by a sly fox who was just stepping out of his den. He turned and looked at sly fox, and he waited to hear the question, but the sly fox didn’t say a single word.
The Johnnycake was puzzled by this, but he was so proud, he called out, “Hey there, sly fox, I’ve outrun the old woman and the old man and the little boy and the well-diggers and the mother bear and the wily wolf, and I’ll outrun you, too.”
“Sorry,” the sly fox called, who really was quite sly. “I’m sorry, Johnnycake, you’ll have to come closer. I can’t hear you from that distance.”
So the Johnnycake rolled a little closer and proudly said, “I’ve just outrun the old woman and the old man and the little boy and the well-diggers and the mother bear and the wily wolf, and I’ll outrun you, too.”
Oh, that fox was a sly one. He cocked his head and said, “I’m so sorry. You see, I’m terribly hard of hearing. You’ll have to come a little closer, please.”
Well, the Johnnycake was bound and determined to prove how very fast he was, and so he rolled right up to the sly fox and shouted in his ear, “I’ve just outrun the old woman and the old man and the little boy and the well-diggers and the mother bear and the wily wolf, and …”
But before he could say anything more, the sly fox opened his mouth and snapped up that sweet Johnnycake.
The sly fox didn’t much like to run, but he sure did like to make his wit run fast.
This story is adapted from a folk tale collected by Joseph Jacobs, the well-known British folklorist. The term “johnnycake” appears to be a Southern U.S. invention; it probably was originally known as a “journey cake,” and was made of maize. In Australia, the johnnycake is made of wheat and is usually cooked over an open fire.