To many people, polenta is a staple of modern Italian cuisine, and why it should not be?
Much like the other Italian staples, pizza and pasta, the dish is the equivalent of a blank canvas: it can be made to be sweet or savoury and can be served as an appetizer, main course, or, potentially, even a dessert. Though the dish itself has really reached the peak of popularity over the last several decades, it has a long and rich history stretching back to the ancient world.
Before looking at the history, the word itself comes from the 16th century Italian word of the same spelling; however this is not its first brush with the English language. In Old English, the word polente was also a derivative or the original word, which comes from the Latin, pollenta, with a meaning of “hulled and crushed grain.”
Interestingly, though we have grown to think of polenta as an Italian dish, it is actually a meeting of the New and Old World. While the Romans had been eating a type of polenta made with farro, millet, spelt, or, typically, barley, the end product that it resembled was considered more of a porridge or gruel.
Polenta – corn
What made this soupy porridge into what we consider polenta nowadays, was a 16th century importation from the New World: corn. Ease of growing and increased crop yields caused corn to quickly become the grain of choice for polenta, which, due to its inexpensive nature, became a widespread peasant food across Europe and North America.
The first mention of a polenta in anything resembling English comes from the Old English Hexateuch, which was originally translated and compiled in the late 900s and is accredited to Aelfric of Eynsham. For Modern English, the first mention comes from William Turner’s A New Hardball, written in 1562, previous to the introduction of corn, where he states that, “Polenta..is made of fried or perched barley.” In just over a century though, as can be seen in the writings of Sir Thomas Browne’s Certain Miscellany Tracts (1683), the lines or New and Old World are beginning to be blurred: “The Polenta, and parched Corn, the old Diet of the Romans.”