Words by Chase Ferren; illustrations by Maria Posato
Before polenta debuted in metropolitan kitchens, it was a poor man’s dish in Northern Italy.
Polenta - now a staple of trendiness at locally owned restaurants sporting Edison light bulbs and craft cocktails - is the starchy glue that sticks to the sides of my family history.
At trendy restaurants, polenta is served on individual dinner plates. In my great-grandfather’s dining room, though, it would be spread over a maple door that covered the table.
Tommaso Pavone, my maternal great-grandfather, was born in a small peasant village outside Anconca, Italy in 1897. He was born poor and stayed poor well into his adult life. At nine years old, Tommaso left his home to work at a restaurant in Germany. (The immigration quota had been filled in the United States for Italians, and emigrating first from Italy to Germany was his only way to circumvent the American quota.) For six years, Tommaso worked at the German restaurant and lived in the back room, saving what little money he made for his trek into a new life. At 15, Tommaso finally arrived in the United States, ready to meet his coal-mining brother, Peter, in Pennsylvania.
Tommaso took his first step on American soil in Boston—much to the dismay of his five children who bought him a commemorative brick from Ellis Island decades later. My mother often recounts this story, imitating Tommaso’s thick accent. His adult children gave him the brick and explained it was from the port where his ship docked, bringing him closer to a new life. Tommaso responded, “‘Whatsa’ the Ellis Island?” His children, confused, said, “When you sailed from Europe your ship entered the US through Ellis Island in New York City.”
“Ellis Island? New York City?” Tomasso asked. “My ship ‘came-a’ to Boston!”
When he “came-a” to Boston, Tommaso carried with him very little money and a reliance on polenta. The dish was part of the “cucina povera” (poor kitchen) in his village; it was a major food group. Polenta is boiled cornmeal served as porridge or as a fried or baked loaf. Its appeal was not the flavor, but its ability to fill one’s stomach for very little money, which was already scarce. My grandmother (Tommaso’s daughter) Josephine—or “Momü”— explained polenta’s significance as a staple of the Pavone family’s peasant life outside Ancona. “That was really how they got along [eating polenta],” she said. “That meal was the most important part of the day.”
It turned out to be how he got along in America, too.
The polenta Tommaso relied on was traditionally served on a polenta board, which looks like a long, narrow cutting board. Due to the size of my family, though, a traditional board would not be large enough. Instead, Tommaso purchased a large maple door, which he laid across his dining room table to add space. Rather than use individual plates, the board served as a communal plate for everyone around the table. Polenta was spread all over the board, after it was cooked in a paiolo (copper pot) for hours, constantly stirred with a cannella, which Momü simply calls “the big wooden spoon.”
At the center of the board laid the polenta’s crown jewel: my great-grandmother Lucille's homemade veal and sausage meatballs, covered with Tommaso’s tomato sauce. (Momü made a point to tell me it was never her mother’s Sicilian sauce that was made for the polenta, as adding Sicilian sauce to a Northern Italian dish would be sacrilege.) When my mother was a child, more than 17 people would sit around the polenta board with forks and work their way toward the center of the board. These “polenta nights” were held three or four times a month in order to corral at least part of the large Pavone family around one table.
My mother and her cousins reminisce about polenta nights regularly, always remembering them as some of their favorite childhood memories. One of the Pavone cousins, Cindy, said her favorite part was just talking to everyone. “I didn’t even like the polenta,” she said. “I just wanted to be with the family. It was so fun and so cozy to be at the table together.”
I have heard about polenta nights my entire life - it has become the folklore of my mother’s side of the family - but polenta nights died out when my mother, her five siblings and their cousins got older and spread out all over the state to start college or their own families. Part of the tradition spread into my own life with the next generation of dinners. Family dinners on my mom’s side have always been intricate productions. Since I was a kid, my mother and Aunt Karen poured over blank legal pads, planning out menus for Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthday and Sunday dinners. It was at these marathon dinners, which often lasted several hours, I learned about Tommaso and how he met my great-grandmother while working with her father in the coal mines. I heard about our other family legends around the dinner table—like Billy Speagel, the neighbor boy who taught my mom and her siblings about the birds, the bees and marijuana. (Stories about Billy always begin with “In Billy Speagel’s driveway…”)
Twelve of us—which lowered to 11 after my sister went to college, 10 after my dad died, and then nine when one of my cousins moved away—sat at a jury-rigged table made up of an oak dining table with a just-too-short card table stuck on the end in my Aunt Karen’s kitchen, an unintentional homage to my great-grandfather. Rather than take me to church every Sunday, my mother took me to Aunt Karen’s for spiritual nourishment and frivolous gossip.
I often forget I was never actually present at polenta nights.
My faux-memory is a result of me piecing together snippets of my family’s narrative, and every story I hear gets me a little closer to the center of the polenta board. Tommaso never returned to his village outside Ancona. When my mother was a child, she overheard him say he felt too much time had passed to ever go back. He built his life in America, with an American job at GM, and five American children. The polenta stuck with him, though, and he continued to spread the cornmeal porridge over a maple door in his Rochester dining room.