“What people and lumpy polenta have in common.”
Imagine you were a cozy, dry particle of cornmeal, awakened from slumber with the brutal act of being thrown into a pot of unfamiliar boiling matter…you’d probably want to clump together with the other grains of cornmeal wouldn’t you?
Food often reminds me of people. I had this strange observation when I was whisking Polenta the other night – annoyed by how long it was taking me to break up the cornmeal bubbles I had poured too abruptly into the chicken stock. In the last couple years, I have been observing and experiencing this phenomenon but I hadn’t really thought about it as clearly as in that moment.
In a Le Creuset Stock Pot, bring 6 cups of chicken broth to a boil.
People group together, they lump up into carefully chosen clumps of familiar and stick together stubbornly. It’s nothing new, its been happening for centuries and I know i’m not the first one to notice it or write about it. Usually its written in the context of people grouping up against “the other”, such as cultural groupings segregating within other cultures…coming together to hold onto who they are and survive while living among strangers.
I have yet to see the comparison written in food terms and that may be why it struck me so obviously…I relate to food, I relate food to the world, it helps me understand things in terms I can grasp and visualize. Maybe people think I’m obsessed with food. My behavior – cooking constantly, photographing and writing about it – could certainly suggest that. They might be surprised to know that it’s not really about the eating, although that absolutely has its distinct pleasures and benefits. My obsession is the making of food. It’s about what I learn and observe in the practice of blending, mixing, stirring, basting, broiling, poaching, tasting, adding and subtracting. It’s where my mind freely, takes me and the thoughts I have about the world, realizations I have about people, things I discover or remember…and sometimes the things I decide to let slip away when I stand vulnerably barefoot in my kitchen kneading sourdough with sticky fingers while sage butter sizzles in a pan.
Throw in two Bay Leaves and SLOWLY add 1 cup of dry cornmeal / polenta. Whisking as you add.
Perhaps this concept of “people and polenta” struck me at that moment because of the drastic changes in my own life recently – a big move with Scott to a completely foreign place. The two of us, strange, sometimes corny particles plopped into a bubbling broth of country culture, knowing NO ONE in town, contemplating the perception others may have of us, recognizing how we currently stand out in dress, talk, in behaviour…we are a novelty.
For instance…I terrify our butcher. When he sees me coming up the aisle in the local market, he gets nervous. No one has ever asked him for pork belly. No one inquires after fresh clams. Real lard does not exist for purchase in this world. That’s fine, I can make my own. When I take pity on him and ask for ground beef or pork chops -which are gleaming fatly in the well stocked case, the relief on his face is epic. It’s not his fault and I think… there is hope yet. If he is curious and gets tired of not knowing the answers to my questions, he will eventually learn about these “strange” cuts of meat through my gentle, prodding inquiries. He will be a better butcher for it and people in our town will eventually eat sweetbreads, tripe and brains they bought at the local grocery store… and they will save money!
Turn Burner on low, cover and let simmer for 20-30 minutes stirring occasionally to prevent the polenta on the bottom of the pan from burning.
I get the feeling that people don’t really move here, people grow up and move away. The familiar broth of the country steams on, it evaporates as it heats, uncovered and open to the vast sky and stars. The flavor concentrates as it boils and it becomes more dear, its original qualities more rich and distinct even as it diminishes in volume. We newbies are a strange entity, jumping head first into this remote pot, excited to add our foreign flavors to this broth. We are not unwelcome, but we are a curious herbal unknown, people observe and speculate. Scott is known at the grocery store as “The Its It guy” because he happened to mention one night while buying the frozen treats that he runs the “Its It” Facebook fan page, creating quite a stir. He is now a minor celebrity amongst the check out ladies thanks to the best Ice cream treat invented and his basic technological know-how.
Standing over the pot of molten cornmeal, I consider the task of absorbtion that a particle of grain has to undertake to fully become an integral part of a deliciously edible whole dish. It requires courage and evolution, it asks nothing less than abandonment of your original elemental makeup, transformation of form and a harmonious merger with the surrounding environment. I have been trying to blend with my environment for years.
Not all blending experiments work. Some environments are too acidic, too sweet, too hot, too salty, too cold to allow you to mix successfully, no matter the purity of ingredients or wholesomeness of intentions in or outside of the pot. The temperature, salinity and timing has to be exactly right for a blend to occur and for the outcome to be a buttery, comforting dish worth pulling from the wooden spoon with eager lips.
Remove Bay leaves. Stir in 2 tbs of butter and salt to flavor. If you wish to make it creamier, add 1/4 cup of either goat cheese or plain mascarpone cheese. You can also use parmesan cheese. Any cheese will work…
As I whisked with fury, arm tiring, I got to my point, “when we lump ourselves together, we create a barrier between our elemental potential and the outer particles that could make us good enough to become a whole dish with flavor worth consuming…now why would you want to do that, why would you prevent yourself from living to your full potential? It just doesn’t make sense!” then I realized I was talking to the polenta. Ok crazy lady, put down the spoon and walk away.
Sometimes, even when you abandon your unique particle properties and open yourself up to be blended, the environment still won’t let you become a part. Even if you, a simple polenta grain, are able to overcome the barriers and blend successfully, the dish can never be the same as it was before…it has become a new creation. Both sides have to lose something in order to win something worth gaining. Sometimes unlumping is just too scary.
If you cook, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the mayonnaise that doesn’t come together or whipped egg whites that won’t form peaks. It’s when your sauce breaks for no reason and sometimes you can fix it with oil or vinegar while other times, it curdles. Sometimes for no reason at all, a watched pot boils. There are times when polenta lumps just will NOT become unstuck no matter how hard you whisk or how much butter you add. When that happens, you can do two things: cut your losses, forgive yourself, throw out the lumpy batch and start over again in a new pan OR enjoy the lovely flavor of the polenta despite the lumpy imperfection. I am a new pan sort of girl.
Spoon polenta onto the plate with your accompanying meat or vegetable main dish OR top with sage brown butter and an over easy egg for a delicious, comforting breakfast dish.
I have a lot of hope for this new recipe for my life. I wake up every day inspired and eager to embrace the environment around me. With every new encounter, I’m gaining an understanding that the failures of recent history didn’t mean I was broken, incapable, unfriendly, uninteresting or an ingredient unworthy of incorporating into the “sauce” I sought to become part of…but maybe that I just hadn’t found the “dish” I was elementally meant to combine with.
Every day I keep experimenting with gently folding myself a little more into this new life. I tuck into the natural depth of my new surroundings and in spite of losing some part of my “self”, I find my essence growing stronger. I am thriving on the scents of these new surroundings… mossy earth, newborn sage and sweet waters of a living brook. These woody flavors drift, like honeybees through my kitchen window and ride the breeze to pollinate my soul so that new thoughts, ideas and words can bear fruit in the coming season.
Nutritional Information (includes caloric content of soft goat cheese with recipe)
Total Fat 13.6g
Saturated Fat 9.2g
Total Carbohydrates 25.9g