Originally Published in 2015
“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” so they told us in school. What slipped past some history teachers was the return voyage to Spain. I guess once you have supposedly discovered something comin’ home makes no difference to anyone, especially those same history teachers.
Now don’t get your knickers in a wad I’m not saying all people with Ph.D.’s in history are nuts. Just some of them. Why several of my friends have a Ph.D. in history and they are not nuts… Now, what makes the Columbus voyage home so important? Why boys and girls it was what was in the cargo hold of those ships. Corn, that’s right CORN. Until then Europe and in particular that country called Italy had never heard of corn. That by the way was in the early to mid-1500. It still took them a few years to figure out just what to do with corn.
Corn was originally grown in the mountainous region of the northern part of Italy. Yea, I know who knew there was an Italian hillbilly. I guess I will have to leave that for another time. I have far more important issues to deal with.
Someone in one of those mountain hamlets decided to make a favorite Italian dish called Polenta. Traditionally Polenta is made with ground Barley, linseeds, coriander, and sufficient salt. That is according to Pliny but Apicius, y’all remember him and the fried chicken don’t ya. Well, Apicius stuck his big nose in it the debate and altered the recipe to wheat flour served with honey.
Back to the mountains of Northern Italy. Someone, a Yankee at that decided to use cornmeal and had the nerve to call the final product Polenta. I am certain that more than one Native American was not happy over that. Why, because Mush, is Native American, made the same way as the traditional Polenta, but with cornmeal same cooking time, in fact, the same everything.
My response to this and to all those T.V. Chefs who insist they are right and the rest of us are wrong is NO. Not just NO but HELL NO, that’s not POLENTA. It’s MUSH damn it.
To prove my point I will give you my grandmothers mush recipe:
3/4 cup – cold water (177.5 ml)
3 cups boiling water (709.8 ml)
1 cup – cornmeal (236.6 ml)
1 tsp – salt (4.93 ml)
First, make a paste with cold water and cornmeal/salt mixture, then stir in boiling water. Continue to cook (stirring often) over low heat for about 20 minutes, then pour into a small loaf pan and chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, until the mush is set. Slice thinly (about 1/2 inch slices) and fry in oil until crispy brown. (We used lard to fry them in but in today’s world, you may use whatever floats your boat.)
If you have Cracklin’s, that’s the way I remember it but if you have crispy bacon or some dried fruit layin’ around then by all means toss a handful in after the cookin’ is done.
You can serve hot with eggs and bacon or with syrup or sausage gravy, but my favorite is apple butter, preferably homemade.
Now if you see one of those celebrity chefs and you know who they are use this recipe and call it Polenta you can do two things… Scream at the T. V “NO” and then write a proper and polite little note telling them that what they made is Mush. It is of course your Southern duty.
Below is the original from that Apicius fellow I have been fighting with.
Fried Cream Wheat from the Ancient Romans
Accipies similam, coques in aqua calida ita ut durrissimam pultem facias, deinde in patellam expandis. Cum refrizerit, concidis quasi culdia et frigis in oleo optimo. Levas, perfundis mel, piper aspergis et inferes. Melius feceris, si lac pro aqua miseris.
Take flour [semolina], cook in hot water so that it becomes a very firm polenta, and then spread it on a plate. When it has cooled, cut it as for sweet cakes and fry in oil of the finest quality. Remove, pour honey over, sprinkle with pepper, and serve. You will do even better if you use milk instead of water.
The De re coquinaria of Apicius as found in A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, Translated by Anna Herkolotz