Sunday, February 17, 2008

Polenta and Pig Food

Many years ago, I lived in a narrow house of golden stone, in Assisi. I didn’t live there long, only a few months. I did live there just long enough to become acutely aware of how I did not fit in, and to absorb a few of the local customs (even as I was skeptical of them). And I lived there plenty long enough to realize that I am deeply, deeply attached to indoor heating. When it snows on November 1st and you can see your breath inside, you will come to terms, once and for all, with your deepest, truest feelings about indoor heating. I realized that I am very much for it. Also, hot water bottles are awesome.


Although I lived in Assisi very briefly, I unwittingly, and even a little unwillingly, absorbed some of the local biases. Amongst them:
1) Milan sucks and Milanesi are snobs, and if you want a good city, you should go to Rome or Florence. Honestly? I have no idea about Milan, having never been there, but I am deeply enamored of Rome. The whole one city vs. another is a bias, clearly provincial. I absorbed it a bit. Broadly categorizing almost any city and its inhabitants thusly is, obviously, a bit ridiculous.
2) Home-made pasta is only to be made with 00 flour (doppio zero, or as I found myself thinking of it, the James Bond of flours, having earned its double-oh designation). Eh. I watched the housewives and the nonnas make their pasta, looked at many locals buying theirs and concluded that for a not dissimilar price and a great deal less time, very nearly as good as (expertly) home-made could be bought at the pasta store in Santa Maria degli Angeli, just down the hill. My conclusion was less about The Proper Way to make pasta than about the merits of making it at all.
3) Polenta is pig food. Look, I’m not the one who said it, okay? But until tonight, I never once made polenta at home. Why would you make polenta, I thought? I didn’t think “because it’s pig food” but some kernel of bias clearly wriggled its way into my mind and refused to leave. I ate it when offered, but…. meh. And since my housemates were from Umbria, Lazio, and Puglia, polenta, a much more northern dish, was never really discussed as a possible part of dinner together. Ever. When polenta somehow came up with one of the women in the village I worked in, she sniffed and dismissed it as pig food. Which, okay, was what she dismissed almost anything made with corn as, now that I think about it. I was impressionable, and she’d cooked me more than one good dinner. What can I say?

What I can say is that I finally made polenta for the first time. And… it was okay. I just couldn’t quite shake my more than decade-old bias against it, even though, technically, I could taste that there was nothing actually wrong with it. I served it with sausage and rapini, and the pan juices were lovely, and the kids ate it willingly and… well. Hmm. The thing is, I kept thinking that a flatbread, torta al testo (the central Italian answer to pita, I suppose), would have been so much better with it. The nonnas and housewives may not have fully triumphed with me, but they made a dent.


Anonymous said...

My familiy came from Bari in the south and they never made polenta. I'm guessing the pig food remark has a little something to do with north vs south? Anyway, as an adult I tried polenta many times. I only like the creamy type and it has to be well flavored. Your dish looks very delicious :)

cook eat FRET said...

i love pig food


Julie said...

I'm not the world's biggest polenta fan but I love rapini and I think sausage and rapini are a perfect combination for polenta -- in fact, I can't think of anything they'd be better with, including bread or pasta. Greens just seem to go particularly well with polenta.

But those people who like polenta with a meat sauce? I don't get that at all.

Meg said...

Maryann- I think you're right, that it's a north-south thing. It's mostly provincial smack-talking.

Claudia- hee. I think I may have made it a bit badly. I'll probably give it another go (eventually).

Julie- I've had good polenta, so I know it can be done. I'm with you on sausage and rapini, though, or sausage and any other bitter green. I'll go ahead and (again) show my bias towards central Italian foods and say that the very best possible thing for sausage and rapini is torta al testo, a central Italian (or who knows, perhaps wider spread than that) flatbread that is then used much like pita, and stuffed with it (after it's lightly grilled). Amazing.