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Polenta. From a painting by Pietro Longhi, Venice 1740. The painter left an extensive documentation of everyday life in the city. In this domestic scene, two women pour polenta from a typical copper cauldron. The background shows the fireplace where the polenta was cooked.
Polenta is generally associated with northern Italy, but it is popular in many regions, and there are different ways to make it. In northern Italy, it is made solid and then cut into slices to accompany other foods as a substitute for bread. In central Italy, polenta is made in the consistency of porridge, then spread on a large wooden board in a thin layer and dressed with different sauces. Polenta con le Spuntature (polenta with pork ribs and tomato sauce) of Abruzzi is especially famous.
Polenta was most frequently made in a large copper cauldron hung over a fire in a wood-burning fireplace and stirred continuously with a wooden stick. Then the paste was poured onto a wooden board. Polenta is an extremely versatile dish that can be fried, grilled, baked, or eaten on its own topped with meat or tomato sauce.
The origins of polenta can be traced back to the Etruscans. They prepared a dish called puls, a mixture of mashed grains boiled in water and eventually enriched with any kind of available dressing.
It was a very practical food, economical and easy to make, and the Romans inherited and diffused it everywhere. Under the name pulmentum, it became the food Roman legions ate while conquering the world. The present version of the Roman pulmentum is polenta, made today with cornmeal.
Corn is said to have been introduced to Italy in 1494 by a Venetian diplomat who received a few seeds as a present soon after Columbus’s return from his travels to the West Indies. In Venice, corn was erroneously called grano turco (Turkish wheat), a name still used today.
Due to its capacity to produce gradually a large yield, corn cultivation was developed all over the Veneto area. Soon, polenta made from corn replaced all other grains (mainly sorghum and millet) used until then. It became the food of the peasants too poor to afford bread, especially in the mountainous areas and valleys of the Alps. For this reason, corn was considered a food of inferior quality for a long time.
Maize was also a very convenient crop for owners of large estates to feed their workers economically. Consequently, in large areas of northern Italy, corn polenta became a unique staple—a condition that would soon lead to disastrous consequences because maize is missing an important vitamin, niacin, which is indispensable for the body. Niacin deficiency causes “pellagra,” a fatal disease.
This illness was unknown to American populations who ate corn with other foods, therefore integrating the missing element. In northern Italy, the phenomenon reached epidemic proportions. After a few decades and thousands of fatalities, the cause was finally understood in the beginning of the 1800s. Adding a little meat or some vegetables to the diet was an easy cure for the disease.