by Pasquale Mosconi
time I think about how my parents used to make polenta,
my mouth waters. For those of you who are not familiar
with the term "polenta", that's corn meal mush.
Along with beans, potatoes and pasta, we used a lot of
polenta during the Depression years. It was very
inexpensive and made a savory meal that could feed six
people for less than a dollar.
My recollection of making polenta began when Pop put the board that mom used to make her bread and pasta on the kitchen table. That board was about two foot wide and about three foot long. My two brothers and I would sit on chairs back from the table and wait impatiently for the polenta to be ready to eat. Next, a large aluminum pan of water would be put on the stove and a five-pound sack of corn meal was poured into a bowl. My dad and my uncle were the ones who actually poured the corn meal into the large pan when the water was boiling and stirred it until it was the right texture to eat. This is the only time that I can ever recall my dad or my uncle helping my mom make a meal.
When the water began to boil, my uncle Victor, who was called "Vito" (Weeto), would get handfuls of corn meal and let it sift through his fingers into the water until it started to build up in the pan. Pop would get the rolling pin that mom used to roll out her polenta - it was about four-foot long and about an inch and a half in diameter - and would start stirring the polenta as it started to get thick. Vito would continue to pour handfuls of corn meal into the pot until he got the right amount in there. Pop would continue to stir it as the polenta started to thicken. Vito would get a couple of hot pads and hold the pan as it sat on the coal stove. He would hold it with both hands so that pop could stir the polenta until it got to the final texture.
When it was ready, Vito and pop would lift the pan off the stove and dump its contents on the board on the table so it could be spread out over the board. Pop got a spoon and scraped the polenta out of the pan and off the rolling pin. Pop would then get the rolling pin and roll the polenta out until it was nearly touching the sides and the end of the board and was approximately an inch thick.
Mom would then take over - she had prepared "sugo" or tomato sauce ahead of time that consisted of some ground meat and some jars of tomato that she had canned during the summertime. Next, she would use the back of a small spoon and go all the way around the edge of the polenta about an inch inside of the edge and make a little ditch so that when she poured the sugo on there, it wouldn't run off the edges. She would get a ladle and pour the sauce so that it covered the entire polenta. When that was done, we were ready to sit down and eat. Pop would sit on one end of the table and Vito would sit on the other end of the table. Mom and I sat on one side, and Nick and Joe sat on the other side.
We each had a fork with which to eat the polenta - that was the extent of our tableware. We would then use the side of the fork and cut a little chunk of polenta six to eight inches wide and back about an inch. We would cut the polenta into little pieces and begin to eat. The polenta was so deeeeelicious - it was really worth waiting for. We would continue to cut another six- to eight-inch row and eat some more polenta until we'd had our fill. Usually about a third to a half was left over. When the meal was over, Mom would get a spatula, cut the polenta in about four-inch by four-inch pieces, put it on dishes and put them in the refrigerator. The next day, Mom would get her big iron skillet out and put a some olive oil in there. She would heat three or four pieces for us to eat. Obviously, we didn't have microwave ovens in those days, or we'd have "nuked" it. The thing that was good about eating polenta the next day is when Mom heated it in the skillet, a nice crust would form on the bottom of each piece. Mom would put one piece on each of our plates and then start to warm up some more. It was a second day of tasty, delicious polenta. I don't recall ever thanking my Mom and Dad and Vito for helping to make polenta, but I would like to take this opportunity to thank them now for a delicious and memorable meal.
Post Script: A battle raged for years between Pat and his brother Joe about the actual size of the polenta board. Joe maintained that it was quite a bit larger, while Pat adamantly stood by his estimate. Today the battle is over! Joe finally received verification when a friend measured the actual board (which is still in the family) and found that Pat was off in one of the two measurements by a mere 4 inches. Joe stands humbly corrected.
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