Thursday, June 17, 2010

Whereupon Gramma Vowed Never to Eat Polenta Again!

Polenta! Betcha want some polenta, right! Probably wondering what it is and how to cook it, right?

I think I was eating the stuff before you were born. And so was my Mom. And my Grandma. And so were Per Hansa and his wife, Beret, the main characters in O.E. Rolvaag's fiction, Giants in the Earth. (Per Hansa and his wife and family were Norwegian immigrants who settled in eastern South Dakota after having spent time in Minnesota.)

In 1949 our family was living on a small hill farm in western Iowa. We ate polenta cornmeal mush. And we didn't buy it in a box at the grocery store. My dad used a Maytag motor to power a small grinder which turned yellow corn into a meal that could be cooked into mush.

The photo may be a different model than my Dad's Maytag, but it's similar. A belt ran from the wheel on the Maytag to a similar wheel on the grinder. When it wasn't powering the grinder, he had it hooked up to the wringer washer for our laundry. It made a very satisfying chuggy noise.

We were eating from the bottom of the barrel in 1949 when my mother cooked mush for cereal and then sliced the leftover mush and fried it for the next meal.

Mom says that when she was a child, growing up on the family homestead in Nebraska, cornmeal mush was often on the table. And when my Grandmother moved to California in the late 1940s she (Grandmother) vowed to never eat corn meal again. California was the new land of plenty and I'll bet she kept her vow.

As for Per Hansa and his wife, Berta, in Rolvaag's novel? They subsisted nearly a year eating only cornmeal every meal. For a treat, such as some child's birthday, she allowed them to sweeten it with a bit of sugar.

"Real" polenta is actually a popular food in Italian and other European cuisine. You can read more about polenta here. Alton Brown has a recipe and instructions here.

Now...that is, today...in our country, cornmeal mush has gone from poor man's food to a premium menu item in the finest restaurants. Go figure.

If you haven't tried polenta, think of Cream of Wheat, only in a yellow version with a corny taste. Or if you are from the South, think of Grits, made from white corn.

And You? What are YOU having for dinner tonight?

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5 comments:

Gregg said...

I remember when I was little eating alot of grits and hominy. Meat was for Sundays and it was usually chicken. I can see why grandma vowed never to eat mush again!

Glenda said...

I've never eaten polenta, but we do eat grits. I enjoyed reading your story about your family. Times were hard then, weren't they? I've heard my FIL talk about how little they had to eat; sweet potatoes were one of their staples.

And now . . . we have so much and waste so much. Tonight we're having leftover grilled burgers and hot dogs my husband cooked today - with a fresh tomato from the garden, of course!

Teresa @ Grammy Girlfriend said...

I have never eaten it but loved the post

Bill said...

Polenta sounds pretty good to me.

Kelly said...

I learned about polenta on the Food Network. Actually, I've learned a LOT of things on that channel!

I'm a southerner. I'll take grits, thank you. Add garlic and cheese, too, if you don't mind. Yum!