Corn Meal = Polenta?

Reader Chana asks:

A question: any historical or known connection between spoon bread and polenta?

Oh my yes. Well, the dishes aren’t strictly related, but the main ingredient is the same: corn meal. Polenta, an ancient Italian dish, is usually made with a slightly coarser form of corn meal, that’s the only thing that distinguishes it from American corn meal mush or grits. The fact that both Americans and Italians have a corn dish like this in our repertoire isn’t so much evidence of a relation as it is a testament to the fact that most cultures make some sort of wet grain porridge.

But Joe, how can polenta be “an ancient Italian dish” when corn is a New World crop? An excellent question. Polenta is a word that describes a preparation. “Cereal” (as in breakfast cereal) is another word like that. The component(s) can change, but the basic idea remains the same. Prior to the Age of Exploration, people living on the Italian peninsula ate polenta, only then it was made from other cereal grains. Buckwheat, for example.

When corn was introduced in the early 1500’s it rapidly took over as the dominant crop, especially in the northern part of the peninsula where it grew well. It was an easy substitution, in fact corn porridge is arguably an easier preparation to make that wheat porridge. The big problem there was that the poorest of the inhabitants ate nothing else, and when you eat nothing but corn you get a disease called pellagra.

Simple ground corn, you see, is deficient in several key nutrients, notably niacin. A niacin deficiency is the main cause of pellagra, which exhibits itself as a nasty skin rash which is soon followed by weakness, then eventually dementia and death. It came to be common in Italy (the word itself is Italian) and most other places where people depended heavily on corn (the Southern United States, for example). Almost unbelievably, the causes of and cures for pellagra weren’t identified until 1938.

The interesting thing about pellagra is that many of the peoples who first cultivated corn — i.e. native Mesoamericans — never suffered from it, even though corn was central to their diets. The reason, because of the way they processed their corn, treating it with lime or ashes (both alkalines) to remove the tough outer pericarps. Nixtamalization is what it’s called, for they still do it today, and it just so happens that it has the effect of freeing the niacin in corn for use by the human body.

Just how the Mesoamericans hit on this technique remains a hotly debated subject. However suffice to say it was of no interest whatsoever to the early explorers, which was a pity. Many, many people suffered for it later.

So there you go. We start out talking porridge, we end up with pellagra. That’s for you, ladies and germs. I swear, sometimes I think I need analysis.

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