Italian Cuisine
Polenta: Angelo e Demone

MOST PEOPLE THINK OF PASTA AS THE QUINTESSENTIAL ITALIAN DISH, and this is true for much of the Peninsula, especially the south. Polenta, on the other hand, was the staple food of the poor in the North, especially those living out in the country. Prior to the introduction of corn in the late 1700s it consisted of grains and/or legumes mashed and cooked to a mush, and seasoned with oil, onion, fennel, honey, or whatever was available. Uninspiring, but certainly nutritious enough to keep people alive.

With the introduction of corn things changed radically, as the land owners discovered that the new grain was more productive than the traditional grains, and they could therefore devote more of their land to crops that would bring them income if they had their tenant farmers subsist on corn. The corn was milled like the traditional grains had always been, and polenta came to mean corn meal mush. Before long poor families subsisted on nothing but, as Pasquale Villari 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 daily; the commission [investigating the lot of the workers] 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 frequently 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."

Alas, simply grinding corn to make cornmeal produces a food that's filling but not nutritious, as the Human digestive system is unable to get at the nutrients (the Amerindians who lived on corn processed it differently); the exclusive dependance on cornmeal polenta brought with it an appalling nutritional deficiency called pellagra, which "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..."

WHY, YOU WONDER, WOULD ANYONE WANT TO EAT A FOOD THAT BRINGS ALL THIS ON? The answer then was that there was nothing else, and those who were unable to emigrate had no choice. North Italians still eat it today, on the other hand, because it is very tasty, extremely versatile, and an ideal accompaniment to all sorts of things. Though it can be bought ready-made, purists are correct in saying that what you make at home is better.

To Make Polenta at Home

  • 1 pound or slightly more of coarsely ground corn meal (you want corn meal the consistency of fine to medium-grained sand, not flour)
  • 2 quarts boiling water (have more handy)
  • A heaping teaspoon of salt

Set the water on the fire in a wide bottomed pot and add the salt. When it comes to a boil, add the corn meal in a very slow stream (you don't want the pot to stop boiling), 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.

Serves 4.

Making polenta from scratch like this takes a fair amount of effort, because you really do have to stir constantly, or the polenta will stick to the bottom of the pot and burn. If you like polenta, you should consider purchasing a polenta maker, which is a pot with a motor-driven paddle that takes care of the stirring for you. Also, while polenta is nice year round, making it in the summer will heat your kitchen, which is something you would likely rather do without. Commercially prepared polenta doesn't have the consistency of the home-made variety, but will work and is a terrific timesaver. Not to mention cool.

Footnote: This is from

Pellagra was reported first in the United States in 1902. Soon, pellagra began to occur in epidemic proportions in the American South. Poverty and consumption of corn as a dietary staple were the most frequently observed risk factors. However, the exact cause of pellagra was not known, though the consumption of spoiled corn initially was implicated. Dr Joseph Goldberger of the US Public Health Service finally hypothesized that the clinical syndrome was the consequence of an inadequate diet, and he demonstrated that pellagra could be both induced and prevented by dietary modification.

In 1937, Conrad A. Elvehjem, an agricultural chemist at the University of Wisconsin, discovered that nicotinic acid cured black tongue (a condition analogous to pellagra) in dogs. Human clinical trials soon followed and confirmed that nicotinic acid (niacin) represented the key preventive factor to pellagra. Diets based on unfortified maize (corn) were found to be pellagragenic for 2 reasons: (1) These diets are low in tryptophan, the amino acid precursor of niacin and (2) Any endogenous niacin is bound and nonbioavailable. Following the discovery of niacin, fortification of flour with niacin and improved socioeconomic conditions were responsible for the eradication of pellagra from the post–World War II United States.

Despite subsisting on a staple diet of corn, populations of Mexico and Central America have remained essentially pellagra-free. Among these people, the tradition of presoaking maize in alkaline lime prior to cooking liberates bound niacin, enhancing the dietary content of niacin and ensuring protection against pellagra. In contrast, endemic pellagra has been noted among poor peasants of the Deccan Plateau of India who subsist on a staple diet of sorghum (millet). Although this grain contains adequate tryptophan (a precursor of niacin), excessive concentrations of leucine interfere with tryptophan metabolism and subsequent niacin synthesis.

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