Many of our modern foods derive from ancient dishes that were created out of the necessity for easily made, easily stored staples and readily available ingredients. Polenta is one such dish. Today we’re bringing you a modern version showing the versatility of this ingredient with a delightful Cheesy Polenta and Egg Casserole. Before we dig in, though, let’s find out how modern polenta made its way onto our plates.
Nowadays we often enjoy polenta served in a fine Italian restaurant surrounded by rich marinara sauces and expertly cooked meats, but in ancient times this dish was eaten by the poorest groups because it was cheap and simple to prepare. Originally called pulse pottage, it offered peasants a way to survive with very few resources. Depending on the region and time period, it ranged from a runny porridge to a crumbly cake and could be whipped up with ingredients at hand. Throughout antiquity it was made with different flours based on what was available. In Roman times, spelt flour was the main ingredient. Eventually other grains would make their way into the pottage, including wheat, barley, millet, sorghum and more. Northern Italians who lived among the abundant chestnut trees used chestnut flour in their version of the staple dish.
In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, corn, or maize, was brought to Italy from the New World and corn flour quickly replaced all other flours in the production of pulse pottage. The pottage slowly evolved into what we know today as polenta. In the New World polenta was being eaten by the colonists, but was regularly called mush. Again, it was an easy and inexpensive source of food and could be prepared in a variety of ways. It is said that some colonists called it “polenta” because they thought it sounded more dignified. In Italy, corn and thus polenta grew in popularity among both the poor and the rich classes. By the 18th century, “corn had become a hedge against famine for the peasants of the northern provinces and, for the nobility, a version of pastoral, ” a popular affectation of the period. Numerous recipes using polenta were developed in both Italy and the United States.
Such a humble beginning, but such an impactful history. Polenta undoubtedly saved millions from starvation throughout antiquity and into modern times.
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