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.

Polenta CouCouCou-cou (Barbados)

Polenta angu chicken with okra and mush BrazilAngu with Chicken and Okra (Brazil)

Polenta kachamakKachamak with Cheese (Bulgaria)

Polenta FunchiFunchi with Pork (Curaçao and Antilles)

Polenta banku with sauceBanku with Sauce (Ghana)

Polenta Kenkey and sardineKenkey and Sardines (Ghana)

Mayi Moulin — Red Beans with Cornmeal (Haiti)*

Polenta puliszkaPuliszka (Hungary)

Photo credit: Mark Skipper
Photo credit: Mark Skipper

Ugali (Kenya)

Photo credit: Chez Pim
Photo credit: Chez Pim

Mealie Pap (Lesotho)

Polenta Mamalgia RomaniaMamalgia (Romania)

Polenta UNited States gritsGrits and Shrimp (United States)

Polenta nshimaNshima (Zambia)

Polenta Sadza Zimbabwe
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).

7 thoughts on “A Rogue’s Gallery: The Many Faces of Polenta

  1. Thank for this post! I grew up on cornbread here in the U.S. and later discovered polenta, mamaliga, and puliszka… it is all a variation upon the same theme… and here I see there are many more variations than I ever knew. :)

  2. My husband doesn’t like polenta, but I love it! My mom used to make something called Mexican Pie, with cornmeal mush as the “crust” and chili dumped in the center of the shell, with cheese sprinkled on top.

    Mae, it amazing to see how many cultures adopted corn in place of pre-existing grains and root vegs. Delia, I imagine that a lot of Italian grandmothers couldn’t cook! Jennifer, I’ll have to see if I can find that Alton Brown segment — sounds great.

    Rachel, I thought it was winter coming on here, too — frost on the pumpkin last week, but today, it’s 82 and climbing in Virginia! We had bean soup last night, for heaven’s sake! Today, I guess I should be making a fruit salad.

  3. Isn’t cornmeal porridge just the best comfort food? It’s winter here in the Rockies, so this post is inspiring me to get creative with some warming polenta dishes.


  4. Wow – it all looks so different from the glop my grandmother inflicted on us in my youth. Since I was possessed of the only Italian Grandmother in history who couldn’t cook, her polenta was always frightening. Grampa used to eat it with milk and brown sugar while we suffered with canned tomato sauce!

    thank goodness there ARE people in the world who know how to handle cornmeal mush and wind up with these absolutely divine-looking dishes!

  5. Wonderful post. I had no idea there were so many ways to use “mushy” cornmeal. Alton Brown had a hilarious episode of “Good Eats” on Polenta vs. Grits. That’s all I could think about while reading this :)


  6. This is a wonderful post. The photos really highlight how this simple food plays a role in many food cultures. Thank you.

Comments are closed.