Flickr Creative Commons/Sarah Bodri
A truly Native dish: savoury polenta with bean dip, guacamole, and cheese (and sour cream eventually).

Who Says Polenta Is Italian?

Dale Carson

 It happens over and over again with food that originated in the Americas. They became cultivated, nurtured and developed into recipes and loved by Native Americans, yet they are claimed by other countries as their own. 

We don’t want much, just a little respect. Is that too much to ask? 

Case in point: polenta. The New York Times recently reported about this corn-based dish with a butternut addition. Both corn and squash originated here, not from "peasant Italian stock," nor did polenta come from Mary and Laura Ingalls moving West (into Indian territory). 

The constant stirring and labor intensive preparation may have been an Italian innovation, yet I am sure Native cooks may have spent a lot of time ‘stirring’ their corn mush into lovely polenta.

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So many foods of the Americas have been incorporated into the national cupboards of countries worldwide. I’ve been told that sweet potatoes are as important a crop in China as rice. All potatoes are global. Chocolate, tomatoes and coffee as well, the list goes on. 

It has been estimated that as much as 75 percent of the world’s food originated in either North or South America. I am not asking for drum rolls, just some acknowledgement. 

Children, especially, should be taught the origins of their food, and learn to grow and care for these plants for their own survival in the future. More importantly, they must learn sustainability and how to apply it to all life on earth before it is squandered. There are now several programs planned or in place for schools. Little by little, things move along, often at glacial speed. At least they are moving. 

We, like all indigenous people, are still here and would like to remain so as long as possible. I like to hear about the origin of what I am eating and drinking: English tea, Caribbean rum, cheeses from Europe, tapas from Spain or Portugal, for example. 

Can you imagine wild rice from the Great Lakes area of the Midwest and southern Canada being touted as Irish? Winona LaDuke would be on that before they knew what hit them!

The above is not a rant, just an observation that deserves some thought. It is said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Thank you for listening to my squeak.

Dale Carson (Abenaki) is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking, and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for over 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with them and her husband in Madison, Connecticut.

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galet07's picture
Submitted by galet07 on
Hi, I am from a village on Italian Alps. Indeed we should be grateful for having received corn from the Americas. In the past it was what kept alpine people from starving. Yet I doubt italian peasants copied polenta recipe from anyone. They simply started using corn instead of other cereals used since Roman times to make "puls" (from which the word polenta derives). Anyway, in the end, I think your and my people simply elaborated the recipe from what was available. Doesn't really matter who "came first". By the way there are a thousand ways to cook polenta in Italy... We should exchange recipes;).

feralblue's picture
Submitted by feralblue on
yes, the adding of the squash is especially poignant. and it does a long time to make corn pudding, if you ask me! but, aside from this particular point though (where you are totally right), cultures from all over the world have exchanged foods for centuries of centuries. we were always taught that coffee, chocolate and corn came from the Americas - the Native Americans. and i taught this myself to my lower elementary classes. (at thanksgiving the main thrust of my lessons was Native American history and culture.) Noodles came from China, but the Italians have remarkably expanded on pasta and made the dishes their own. the Swiss have developed incredible chocolates. American Indians used the cotton materials and seed beads from Europe - the amazing bead work you have created is totally different from Europes'. All peoples borrow and make things their own. there's loads of examples. Peace. . .