As with much of rural Trentino, living conditions in Val di Non were very rustic. The houses were modest structures constructed of masonry, stone, and wood, and often had three generations living together. Mostly of two levels, outside stairs were used to access the second level. In the winter, the kitchen was the focal point for all activities, since that was the warmest room in the house. During the 18th and 19th centuries, polenta (made from cornmeal), home-grown vegetables, and cheese were the main foods — meat was a rare luxury. Although the food was filling and satisfied any hunger, it was poor nourishment. As a result, the people were susceptible to diseases, including pellagra.
Below is a story sent to me by Rose Menapace O’Brien, who graciously allowed me to post it:
When I read the menu in an upscale restaurant recently, I saw that an entree would be served on a bed of polenta. Polenta, the mainstay of the diet in South Tyrol, my parents’ home country, had become gourmet food! Memories of my mother (Emilia Maistrelli Menapace from Campo Tassullo, Val di Non) making the weekly polenta flooded my mind.
Every Tyrolese kitchen had the heavy pot and hand-carved stick essential to making good polenta. The stick was about a foot long. Made of hard wood, it lasted a lifetime. The polenta stick served double duty in a household of boisterous children. Mama and the other women brandished the stick, threatening to use it to spank mischievous boys, although I don’t remember her actually using it.
The texture of the cornmeal was crucial to good polenta; it had to be neither too coarse nor too fine. Before telling the Italian grocer to weigh ten pounds in a brown paper bag, Mama tested it by running a small handful of the yellow meal over her fingers and rubbing a pinch between her thumb and forefinger.
To cook polenta, Mama first made a hot fire in the coal range. Then she set the heavy pot, used only for this purpose, on the range and filled it half-way with water. When the water boiled furiously, she added salt, which she had poured into her hand and measured by eye.
Then she slowly poured in the pre-measured cornmeal, stirring vigorously with the polenta stick to prevent lumps. Her practiced eye could tell whether she needed to add a few more dashes of cornmeal. The polenta gradually formed into a round ball, and she kept stirring, bouncing up and down on her heels, until she was satisfied with its texture. The whole procedure took about half an hour, and Mama was flushed bright red by the time she judged the polenta to be ready.
Mama then dumped the ball onto a warm platter. She immediately filled the pot with hot water to soak off the crust of browned cornmeal that adhered to its sides and bottom and was difficult to scrub off without prolonged soaking. Mama then sliced the polenta into inch-thick slabs with a length of #8 white thread that she wound about her hands to keep it taut enoug to cut through the yellow mound. Sauerkraut had simmered for hours with spareribs until the acidity was gone, and we spooned it over the polenta slices and gnawed the tender spareribs for a deeply satisfying supper.
There was always polenta left over. The next morning, Mama fried it in butter with diced boiled potatoes and browned onions for breakfast. She cut the cold polenta into the potatoes with chopping motions of the side of the spatula until the mixture had the consistency of hash. We dunked spoonfuls of the hash into our caffe-latte. If more polenta were left over, she fried the slices golden brown in butter for supper. They made a good foundation for a tomato beef stew.
For a fancier dish served occasionally, Mama would cut the hot polenta into thin slices with the thread and arrange them in layers on a deep platter with pungent grated Asiago cheese from the wheel Papa ordered every fall from Chicago. She had browned onion slices in butter until they were pale gold, then added cream milk. She poured the hot mixture over the polenta just before serving it. One of our Tyrolese neighbors would go into ecstasies describing “polenta concciada gio” (literally, fixed-up polenta) in the recipe-sharing sessions on her front porch where the coal miners’ wives gathered to gossip after supper on warm evenings.
My memory has carried me from polenta as “the bread of life” in the warm kitchen of my childhood in an immigrants’ family in Segundo, Colorado, to the menu in the noted restaurant in Pasadena, California. My mother, grandmothers and aunts would have enjoyed a deep chuckle at the promoton of polenta to gourmet food.
Today, polenta can be found in many Italian restaurants and on supermarket shelves. Unfortunately, not made with the devotion and love that we knew as children.