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Polenta: The Staple Food of the North

Polenta Cooking in a Copper Paiolo

Polenta is (now) corn meal mush, and is one of the staple foods of northern Italy, where you will find it sliced and fried or grilled (often with a topping) as an antipasto, sauced much the way one might sauce pasta, transformed into rich casseroles, and served as a side dish, again either by the scoop (especially with a stew), or sliced and grilled, which imparts a delightful smoky tang.

In short, polenta is versatile.

Making it is straight forward. You’ll need:

  • A slightly abundant pound (500 g) coarsely ground corn meal (you want corn meal the consistency of fine to medium-grained sand, not flour, and if possible stone-ground)
  • 2 quarts (2 liters) boiling water (have more handy)
  • A heaping teaspoon of salt

Set the water on the fire in a wide bottomed pot (Italians use a copper pot like the one shown above, which is called a paiolo) and add the salt. When it comes to a boil, add the corn meal, in a slow stream to keep the water boiling, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep lumps from forming. Continue stirring, in the same direction, as the mush thickens, for about a half-hour (the longer you stir the better the polenta will be; the finished polenta should have the consistency of firm mashed potatoes), adding boiling water as necessary. The polenta is done when it peels easily off the sides of the pot.

This is the standard technique you will find in all Italian cookbooks.

It does have a drawback, however: you have to stir constantly lest the polenta stick and burn, and stirring for a half hour or more is tiring. Enough that in Italy you will find paioli with motorized stirrers that work very well.

While convenient, a mechanized paiolo is not strictly necessary, however. A friend tells me that a friend of his stopped in a restaurant in the Valle D’Aosta in mid-afternoon and was served polenta immediately: The trick, the cook told her, was to bring the water in the paiolo to a boil as normal, salt it as normal, and stir in the cornmeal. Then cover the paiolo with a sheet of brown paper of the sort paper bags are made from, clamp a lid over the paper, and turn the heat way down.

No stirring, no fuss, the polenta is ready in 40 minutes, and you can keep it simmering for quite a bit longer.

“We’ve tried it,” he says, “and it really does work.”

Now that we’ve taken care of the recipe, a little history:

I noted above that polenta is now made from cornmeal. Prior to the introduction of corn to northern Italy in the late 1700s it was made from grains and legumes that were cooked until soft, mashed, and then seasoned with whatever was available. Frugal and uninspiring, perhaps, but nutritious enough to keep the poor who ate it alive.

With the introduction of corn things changed radically: it is more productive than the grains traditionally grown in Northern Italy, and the land owners realized that if they had their tenant farmers subsist on corn they would be able to devote more of their land to crops that would bring them income. So they did, milling the corn like they had milled the grains, and polenta came to mean corn meal mush.

Before long poor families subsisted on nothing but, as Pasquale Villari, a Senator of the Realm, reported in his book, Lettere Meridionali, in 1886: “…The farmers known as disobbligati (day laborers) support more than 20,000 families around Mantova, and there are many others who aren’t much better off. These laborers earn a wage of about 1.2 Lire per day, when they work, and their hardships last 10, 12, and even 14 hours per day; a Parliamentary commission investigating their lot justly termed their conditions homicidal. The farmers and their families survive almost exclusively on polenta, to which they add onions and bad cheese in the evening, but not always. When they’re working they also eat bread and soup once a week, but during the winter it’s polenta morning noon and night, and the three meals are often compressed into one. What’s more, the polenta is frequently made from corn that has spoiled for lack of drying kilns, and has either fermented or sprouted. This state of affairs worsens day by day, and has already begun to touch the more wealthy farmers, to the point that they have begun to sell their pigs, and the portion of grain assured them by their leases, to buy corn to stay their hunger throughout the winter.

Living exclusively on polenta had disastrous consequences for the north Italian poor: the simple mechanical grinding technique they used failed to release the nutrients, especially niacin, in the corn kernels, and niacin deficiency results in a frightful disease called pellagra; Mr. Villari says it “begins with head and back pains, numbness of the extremities, and stomach aches. The sight becomes foggy, hearing declines, and then palsy begins, starting in the trunk and spreading to the extremities and tongue. It’s generally a progressive disease, but can become acute, almost like typhus, and kill quickly. However, it usually takes several months, with flare-ups that exhaust the victim and can kill him in a variety of ways that mimic other diseases. It frequently induces madness, which is also intermittent, and takes many forms, in particular depression and despondency…”

While Pellagra was still widespread in the early 1900s, it faded as the economic conditions of the poor improved, allowing them to accompany their polenta with other foods, and it is by now all but forgotten. And polenta, which had been looked at with suspicion, because people did make the connection between an exclusively polenta-based diet and pellagra, is instead greeted with joy, because it is both tasty and versatile.

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