Polenta today is known as being an Italian hot cornmeal porridge that can be prepared quickly and easily and is eaten as either a side dish or a main meal. It has been around since the time of the ancient Romans but was not popularized in America until the 19th century. The recipe I found in Janet Ross’ cookbook, Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen features only five ingredients (if you count water) which were all readily available to most Americans at the time. All you needed for this 1903 recipe was Indian corn flour, salt, water, parmesan cheese and butter. This dish made for a simple yet hearty and filling meal that cost little time and money to make, making it a good meal for lower class families to prepare. With all that in mind, my social question is why did polenta become a meal that Americans started to prepare and consume in the late 19th to early 20th century?
(Pictured Above: The cover of the “Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen” cookbook)
The oldest American polenta recipe I was able to find was in an 1894 cookbook titled The American Pastry Cook which is very similar to Janet Ross’ recipe for Polenta ‘alla parmigiana’. It only has a few differences such as using pepper along with corn meal and cracker meal. Additionally, the instructions are more detailed than Ross’ recipe and describes what the polenta should look like after various stages. The author describes that it should look like a “stiff, well- cooked mush” and should be “nicely browned at top and bottom”. In this older recipe, polenta was seen as being a homely and humble dish that was an elevated form of “mush”. It made use of ingredients that were easily attainable and were cheap for the average working class American. Here is the recipe below:
Polenta alla Parmigiana.
Stir one pound of Indian corn flour,a little at a time, into one pint of boiling salted water
until smooth, then turn out into a dish to cool, In a layer about half an inch thick.
When quite cold, cut into pieces of one inch long, and pile in layers in a baking-dish,sprinkling each layer well with grated Parmesan cheese and some melted butter.
Bake in a slow oven and serve hot.
(Pictured below is a modern image of polenta with parmesan cheese from: https://familystylefood.com/how-to-make-creamy-polenta/)
Polenta is also featured in this 1895 book titled The Thorough Good Cook that discusses the various ways of preparing and eating polenta. He first describes polenta as being “the food of high and low through Italy” which to me highlights the idea that polenta is a dish for everyone. The author also talks about various ways to add elements to polenta such as eating small birds with it, adding ham or sausages, or adding gravy like the Neopolitans do. What I particularly like about this book is that the author discusses the different ways that both people of high status and lower status are preparing and consuming polenta while giving his own two cents. He gives a similar description of cooking it to the other two recipes by using maize or corn flour, butter, salt and pepper.
What these three recipes all have in common is that they all feature cheap ingredients that are easy to cook with. The tools and technology needed to cook this dish is also not very demanding considering that you only needed some kind of heating source and a baking pan. Italians had been preparing this dish since ancient times so it has been technologically possible for centuries. By the early 20th century, most Americans had access to some type of oven whether that be gas or the newly invented electric stove. This is another reason as to why polenta is a dish that practically anyone could enjoy.
Like I stated earlier, polenta is a meal that first originated in Italy but as more Italian immigrants flooded into America, they brought their culture with them which included various Italian cuisines. Polenta dates back before the middle ages and was a dish that was often associated with Italian peasants (The Italian way of Eating, 44). Polenta was not always made out of maize or corn flour until the sixteenth century when maize was discovered in America and these were the recipes that were brought to America (The Italian way of Eating, 49). The way in which polenta was eaten differed amongst different regions of Italy, for example Milanese polenta was mixed with vegetables and flavored with bacon and in Lombardy polenta was made out of buckwheat or Indian corn mixed with milk and cheese (The Food Journal, 639). It started out as a “food of the poor ” but despite that it still “left significant traces in the cooking manuals addressed to the upper classes” (The Italian way of Eating, 45). This is important because polenta becomes this dish that can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of their class or status because many different ingredients (some of which were only available to upper classes) could be added to elevate polenta into something more.
(The above photo is an older method of cooking polenta over a fire in a pot from: http://foodazzuri.blogspot.com/2010/01/how-to-make-polenta.html)
Polenta was a dish that many Italian immigrants found comforting and appealing. There was and still is a strong association of food with their cultural identity (The Gentrification of Polenta). Polenta was a very important part of lower class Italian’s diet so when immigrants came over to America that recipe did as well. As immigrants aged and began to become accustomed to life in the United States, the Italy of their youths became idealized and polenta assumed positive symbolic value (The Gentrification of Polenta, 138). A lot of Italians ate polenta during their childhood so it is not a stretch to say that this dish held a lot of feelings of nostalgia for Italian immigrants and their families as they lived in America. There is still a lot of nostalgia that comes from this dish that extends to modern times as well. For example, the grandson of an Italian immigrant says “Polenta reminds me of my grandfather and nonna. Everytime mom and I make the polenta, we comment on how ours doesn’t turn out as stiff as grandpap’s” (The Gentrification of Polenta, 141). Polenta was eaten as a way to connect to their Italian roots and heritage.
On a more personal note, my Italian grandfather cooked polenta all the time and it was one of his favorite Italian dishes. He would make it the way his Italian immigrant family always made it by cooking it in a boiling pot of water and making his own mushroom gravy which he would pour on top of the polenta along with chicken liver. His family who immigrated from Northern Italy in the early 20th century had always made polenta this way and it was a dish that was reminiscent of his family’s heritage. This is also another prime example of how polenta was elevated as something simple to something more complex.
It looks like polenta was originally a food that came from poor Italian American immigrants but it became a popular dish among Americans who needed an easy but delicious meal to prepare. It was even advertised as a “cheap dinner” in a newspaper written in 1877 and described as “being neither expensive nor unusual, but simply a combination of Indian meal with a little animal fat which is added for the purpose of bringing the amount of carbon and nitrogen or heat and flesh food, in the dish up to the healthful standard of a complete food” (The Cause of Cheap Dinners). It goes on to say that you can also add any type of meat or cheese to increase its nutritive value. This newspaper piece shows that polenta was becoming a more popular dish with Americans who needed quick and easy meals and that people were interested in trying cultural dishes that were brought by Italian immigrants.
Maize had been around in America for countless years so it was common for maize to be in the American diet. I was not surprised to find a couple of newspapers from the 1800s that had a section dedicated to cooking with maize as an ingredient. A 1846 newspaper talks about how to make polenta (in a similar way to how my grandfather made it himself) by boiling it in a pot of water and stirring it until the right consistency and then adding butter, gravy, garlic and parmesan cheese (Maize Cookery, The Ohio Observer). This is another prime example of the popularization of polenta and is an even earlier example of the newspaper mentioned before. It also shows how multi-faceted polenta was because there were several different recipes on how to prepare the dish and it was relatively easy to do so. The second newspaper I found was written a bit later in 1892 and spends the first paragraph talking about how the use of maize is important to not only American cuisine but also European cuisine. The author then goes on to talk about polenta and gives some recipes from Italian chefs to encourage the readers to use cornmeal in a new and different way (Cooking Indian Corn, The Daily Inter Ocean).
With all that in mind, it is fair to say that polenta was a somewhat popular dish among both Italians and Americans alike starting in the mid to late nineteenth century. It is clear that polenta was a nostalgic food that was reminiscent of immigrant’s pasts in their home country of Italy and for many it was a meal that kept them alive because of how cheap and easy it was to prepare. It is also a dish that has been elevated, transformed and has evolved over the years. It is still popular today, almost any Italian American restaurant you walk into will have polenta on their menu.
Whitehead, Jessup. The American Pastry Cook: A Book of Perfected Receipts for Making All Sorts of Articles Required of the Hotel Pastry Cook, Baker, and Confectioner, Especially Adapted for Hotel and Steamboat Use, and for Cafés and Fine Bakeries. United States: J. Whitehead & Company, 1894.
Sala, George Augustus. The Thorough Good Cook: A Series of Chats on the Culinary Art, and Nine Hundred Recipes. United Kingdom: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1895.
The Food Journal. United Kingdom: n.p., 1871. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Food_Journal/hTkZAQAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
Corson, Juliet. “The Cause of Cheap Dinners.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 22 Nov. 1877, p. 2. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/GT3003951790/NCNP?u= lln_aluno&sid=bookmark-NCNP&xid=bf0d8869. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.
Correspondent of Gardener’s Chronicle. “Maize Cookery.” Ohio Observer, 19 Aug. 1846. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/GT3004756803/NCNP?u=lln_aluno&sid=bookmark- NCNP&xid=9f8861f3. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.
Ross, Janet. Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, Or, How to Cook Vegetables. United Kingdom: J.M. Dent and Company, 1903.
“Cooking Indian Corn.” Daily Inter Ocean, 8 Jan. 1892, p. 10. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/GT3001467702/NCNP?u=lln_aluno&sid=bookmark-NCNP&xid=c5cf5ca5. Accessed 15 Nov. 2022.
CAPATTI, ALBERTO, MASSIMO MONTANARI, and AINE O’HEALY. “The Italian Way of Eating.” In Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History, 35–83. Columbia University Press, 2003. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/capa12232.6.
MALPEZZI, FRANCES M., and WILLIAM M. CLEMENTS. “The Gentrification of Polenta.” Italian Americana 23, no. 2 (2005): 133–44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29777022.