A Rogue’s Gallery: The Many Faces of Polenta

Photo credit: Frank Farm
Polenta with Parmesan (Photo credit: Frank Farm)

With apologies to Shakespeare and Romeo & Juliet and all lovers of the same:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So polenta would, were it not polenta call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which it owes
Without that title.

The big fuss in today’s food media and fancy restaurants about polenta —  cornmeal mush slyly passing as haute cuisine — proves once again that, in seeking the old, new generations think they’re discovering something unique and fresh. A look at some of polenta’s cousins from around the globe tells a different story.

Polenta, thy name is legion.

Cou-cou (Barbados)

Angu with Chicken and Okra (Brazil)

Kachamak with Cheese (Bulgaria)

Funchi with Pork (Curaçao and Antilles)

Banku with Sauce (Ghana)

Kenkey and Sardines (Ghana)

Mayi Moulin — Red Beans with Cornmeal (Haiti)*

Puliszka (Hungary)

Photo credit: Mark Skipper

Ugali (Kenya)

Photo credit: Chez Pim

Mealie Pap (Lesotho)

Mamalgia (Romania)

Grits and Shrimp (United States)

Nshima (Zambia)

Photo credit: Christoph Liebentritt

Sadza with Greens (Zimbabwe)

And to think it all essentially began with a dish like this one:**

Indian Mush

Have ready on the fire a pot of boiling water. Stir into it by degrees (a handful at a time) sufficient Indian meal to make it very thick, and then add a very small portion of salt. You must keep the pot boiling on the fire all the time you are throwing in the meal; and between every handful, stir very hard with the mush-stick, (a round stick flattened at one end,) that the mush may not be lumpy. After it is sufficiently thick, keep it boiling for an hour longer, stirring it occasionally. Then cover the pot, and hang it higher up the chimney, so as to simmer slowly or keep hot for another hour. The goodness of mush depends greatly on its being long and thoroughly boiled. If sufficiently cooked, it is wholesome and nutritious, but exactly the reverse, if made in haste. It is not too long to have it altogether three or four hours over the fire; on the contrary it will be much the better for it.

Eat it warm; either with milk, or cover your plate with mush, make a hole in the middle, put some butter in the hole and fill it up with molasses.

Cold mush that has been left, may be cut into slices and fried in butter. From: Directions For Cookery (Philadelphia, 1840), by Eliza Leslie.

* The first video shows the prep up to just before cornmeal to the beans, the second video shows the stirring and cooking of a side dish, as well scenes of life in Pignon, Haiti.

** Grained-based porridge existed, of course, before corn spread across the globe after the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese in the New World. For more on polenta, read Teresa Lust’s essay, “Pass the Polenta,” in her book of the same title, Pass the Polenta: And Other Writings from the Kitchen (1998).

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