I shake my head when I see Italian polenta on a menu or magazine article presented as some exotic gourmet dish. Where I came from (that would be the wilds of central Pennsylvania) cornmeal boiled in water is cornmeal mush. Has been for a long time. American writer Joel Barlow wrote a mock-epic poem about this humble daily staple. As a New Englander, he knew the porridge as hasty pudding.
Thee the soft nations round the warm Levant
Palanta call, the French of course Polante;
E’en in thy native regions how I blush
To hear the Pennsylvanians call thee Mush!
On Hudson’s banks, while men of Belgic spawn
Insult and eat thee by the name suppawn.
All spurious appellations; void of truth:
I’ve better known thee from my earliest youth,
Thy name is Hasty-Pudding!
The Hasty-Pudding, Joel Barlow, 1793
Italy didn’t have corn, of course, until Columbus brought it back from the Americas. While the habit of eating fresh corn never really caught on among Italians, cooking the ground dried kernels did. Generations of Italian peasants survived on polenta. I once interviewed an American woman whose father had grown up in the Veneto. His family ate polenta three times a day. On good days, a few pieces of salami or cheese might accompany the porridge.