Stirring the polenta

I don’t know…I was maybe 11 or 12 and my father told me we were going to dinner at his aunt’s house.  Aunt Della would be serving “buh-lend” (that’s how I heard it).  My questioning face prompted Dad to follow up with a definition, “Corn meal mush.”

The thought of eating ‘mush’ didn’t sound so appealing, but I was curious. 

At Aunt Della and Uncle Joe’s house maybe 18 to 24 people representing four generations of the Carlucci clan had gathered.  The kitchen was buzzing and Aunt Della was, of course, supervising everything. 

When it came time, I was called to the stove where there was a large stockpot of boiling water.  I was given spoon and told to stir as cornmeal was “rained in”: poured, deliberately, steadily and with a measured hand, into the bubbling water. 

“Stir!” Aunt Della commanded.  “No lumps!” 

It wasn’t as severe as it reads.  But if you didn’t know Aunt Della…her abrupt delivery of such lines and the fact that her voice could hit some shrill notes might lead you to think otherwise. 

I didn’t care.  The task at hand was stirring the corn meal into the pot of boiling water.  And then to continue stirring. What I didn’t know was that the stirring would take a good 45 minutes and I was cautioned not to stop 

Our dinner apparently depended upon the job of stirring the polenta properly.  If I failed, my family was going to go unfed…and that wasn’t something I wanted on my young head.  So I stirred. 

I followed as best I could the directions given by my Great Aunt.  And I listened she discussed and discarded various approaches to making polenta: which grind of corn meal was best; whether to start in cold water or hot or make a slurry of the first to add to the second; use some milk or just plain water.  It was a serious and studied debate.  All the time I stirred the pot of slowly thickening porridge. 

When the “mush” was deemed done, the pot was carried to the table and poured out.  Then the tomato gravy poured over it and the meat (meatballs and sausage) placed in the middle. 

Pouring the polenta

Everyone was called to their seats.  There were no plates, we ate from the table. The kids (my generation) were admonished to not reach into the center for the meat.  Instead we had to “fare una strada,” make a path: we had to eat our way from the edge of the polenta nearest our station around the table into the middle before we could enjoy the “prize” of some meat.  It was a rule, I later was told, that came about from hard times.  Everyone had to eat their way to the meat.  The objective being that the youngest members of the gathering would be too full by then, leaving more meat for the adults.  Polenta, after all, was considered a poor person’s meal; a way to fill up one’s belly with cheap, boiled grain and stretching the meager supplies of expensive meats further. 

The boisterous and happy gathering was also a way to fill up one’s soul.  

My enjoyment was heightened by the fact that I was chosen to help prepare the meal.  I had proven my worth…at least in the kitchen. As a reward, I was offered of a small taste of Uncle Joe’s homemade wine. The offer was made via silent nods and gestures between him and my father.  Uncle Joe never said too much. 

I became a huge fan of the communal polenta meal.  We had polenta at Aunt Della’s a few more times before she passed.  And we also had it at the home of Cousin Eddie and his wife Gloria.  Each time, I was given the “honor” of stirring…sometimes by myself, sometimes spelled by Eddie’s brother, Luke. 

Even in college, placing a sheet of plywood over the dining room table in a friend’s apartment, I managed to feed a group of us polenta as a prelude to an evening out. 

Polenta was historically peasant food. The rustic quality of the meal shared literally from the table itself was always a comfort.  Imagine my surprise at reading a story in the New York Times about polenta being served on “the board” at La Cirque 2000.

By the time that article was published (March of 1998), family gatherings around the polenta board had dwindled to precious few.  Yet each fall, as the weather turned cool, I would start thinking about the simple pleasure of polenta and wishing I had a board large enough to serve it from.

A few years ago, we were given a very old, seasoned board by good friends so I could finally prepare and serve this treat to small gathering of up to six people. That winter we introduced my brother-in-law Dave and niece Maloree to the meal…not letting on in advance that they would be eating “mush” right off of a board.  My niece, especially, took a fancy to it and each year asks when we might get together so I can again make polenta.  It’s good to know that the tradition is likely to carry on through another generation.

Polenta on a board

 polenta sulla spianatoia 

  • ¼ cup stone ground corn meal per serving*
  • 1 cup of water per ¼ cup of corn meal
  • Salt to taste

Bring the water to boil in a large pot.  Slowly add the corn meal in a stream, stirring completely to ensure there are no lumps (Use a whisk, it helps).  Once all the corn meal has been added, reduce the heat low enough to just keep the porridge slowly bubbling.  Stir until the desired consistency is reached.  For eating off the board, I like a fairly firm polenta.  You’ll know it’s done when it pulls away from the side of the pan as you stir it.

Sprinkle some corn meal over a clean dry board or wooden bread/pizza peel.  Top with your preferred sauce and some meatballs, sausage, and/or braciole.

Polenta can also be served as an accompaniment to roasted meats or fowl. Or it can spread to cool and set up and then sliced for grilling or browning in a pan.

*I try to keep corn meal on hand to make polenta when the mood hits.  I use a 50/50 mixture of coarse and medium, stone ground organic corn meal.


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2 Responses to “POLENTA!”

  1. Braciole « Dj'eat? Says:

    […] of like the “fancy” nature of the braciole as a contrast to the humble presentation of polenta eaten right off of the […]

  2. Pleasant Peasant Pheasant « Dj'eat? Says:

    […] latest “brainstorm” was for a simple, slow simmered pheasant ragu served over a soft polenta (polenta al ragú di fagiano). On a recent trip to the Griggstown Quail Farm, I had picked up one […]

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