Making Peace with Polenta

Making Peace with Polenta

by C. Kazimir Lynch

Going to my aunt and uncle’s lake house meant a lot to me as a child. It meant that summer was finally at an end, school would be starting in a matter of hours, and I would be facing a dish of polenta before the sun went down.

My aunt and uncle are Italian-American, and not actually relatives. It made perfect sense to call them so, since there was usually nothing to make me feel like anything but family; if it weren’t for the polenta, I might have attained full-blood status.

How well I remember my first taste.

Once a year, polenta was the heart of the gathering, cooked lakeside over an open fire in a pot as big and round and black as a witch’s cauldron. Its preparation was entrusted to the grandfathers, who would not suffer anyone else to lend a hand. Through the long afternoon hours, they took turns stirring the polenta with a long wooden paddle, only stopping to rub the sweat and smoke out of their eyes. No one dared move out of earshot because when the polenta cry went up, everyone had to be ready to jump into action. The family passed the time discussing the joy of polenta, memories of polentas past, and their hunger for the polenta to come. I got caught up in the excitement, and couldn’t wait to eat it; I had never tasted love before, but was sure I was about to.

Finally it was almost done, and the old men told my father and uncle to go make “the easy stuff”: the grilled chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs. In the house, the women unwrapped cold salads and heated the gravies. It wouldn’t be long now.

I sat in front of my empty paper plate eagerly awaiting my serving of polenta. My aunt came around with a steaming bowl piled high with the stuff. They cooked it so hard it looked like fluffy scrambled eggs, one of my favorites — I thought I might swoon. “Would you like some polenta?” she asked me with an encouraging smile.

“Oh, yes please,” I replied, nodding. With a spoon, she carved a large slab out of it and transferred it to my plate. Here it was at last, the food that was going to change my life.

“How about some gravy? We have red or brown,” she said, pointing to the gravy boats.

“Oh, no thank you,” I answered emphatically. I didn’t want anything to get in between me and the transcendent experience I was about to have.

My aunt’s face took on a pained expression. “Are you sure? It’ll taste better with the gravy,” she whispered.

I shook my head. “No thank you,” I repeated.

I watched as my cousins, in their wisdom, poured copious amounts of both red and brown gravy over their polenta — but I remained undaunted. They were initiated, and therefore entitled to some flourishes. I needed to understand polenta in its most pristine state.

I brought the first mouthful to my lips.

At the moment the flavor, or lack thereof, filled my mouth, I was hurled into a place of deepest despair. From its depths, my soul howled in outrage at the prize it had been denied. My mind raced to understand what had just happened. I stared at the large amount of polenta on my plate, trying desperately not to cry because I already knew I could not eat another bite.

I had wanted so badly to love the polenta as much as my aunt and uncle’s family did. Through my misery I watched them all devouring their sauced polenta with relish, adding this pot to their long oral history of cornmeal cookery. It was clear to me that I was an outsider with no hope of belonging.

Polenta and I became enemies; dread accompanied all future trips to the lake. I refused the polenta, even with gravy, and turned my nose up at it. Away from the lake, I described the horror of it to anyone who would listen.

As the years passed, I realized I was unhappy with my palate’s childish reaction to polenta, and wondered whether unfamiliarity had bred contempt. My aunt had tried to serve it to me the way they liked it best, and I had rejected it. I began cooking polenta myself in as many ways as I could find, and though it will never be my favorite food, I finally discovered some of its wholesome charms.

This has become one of my most valuable lessons in taste: Listen to those who already know better. Open yourself to the total experience. And never, ever pass on the gravy.

C. Kazimir Lynch is the publisher’s assistant and associate editor of Art Culinaire magazine. After completing a master’s degree in linguistics, she pursued her culinary training at The Institute for Culinary Education in NYC, and has worked as a chef in both restaurant and catering kitchens. She currently resides in Paterson , NJ with her husband and two cats.