Italian Cooking—The Old Ways

polentaA while back bestselling storyteller extraordinaire Andrew E. Kaufman posted on Facebook the photo of a meal he cooked. Why am I mentioning it? The base for the meal was polenta. These days most people are familiar with polenta. But just in case, let me explain that it’s a mixture of water, salt, and corn flour or maize. Like porridge or oatmeal, it has the consistency of smooth mush. Prior to the introduction of corn in Europe in the 16th Century, other grains were used. It’s an ancient tradition.

In Northern Italy, where I come from, polenta was the equivalent of our daily bread. As a child I watched my grandmother stir the big copper pot traditionally used for making polenta for hours. When it was just the right consistency, she poured it onto a huge wooden board for further preparation. I always scooped the leftovers from the copper pot, poured cold milk on top and ate it. Yum!

Today you can buy polenta pre-mixed or even pre-cooked at the grocery, which allows you to skip the tedious stirring. I don’t know if Andrew made the polenta from scratch. I asked…but it got me reminiscing about life before I married and learned how to cook.

Yes, marriage and cooking go together; at least they did for me. I’m no longer married, but I’m still cooking. I lived with my grandparents until the day of the wedding. They did all the cooking and both had their specialties. I loved everything. We had a garden in front of the house like most Italian homes, and everything was fresh.

But back to my crash course on cooking.

The week before the wedding, my grandmother sat me down for a chat. Uh-oh. What was going on?

“Maria Grazia, what are you planning to do about cooking for your husband?” “Nonna, don’t worry. I have everything–silverware, pots and pans, colander, plates, all wedding gifts. We’re all set.”

She shook her head. “Yes, my dear. I know. But what will you use those new pots and pans for?”

“Oh, do you mean what do I intend to cook? I don’t know. Food?”

From the look on Nonna’s face, I had said exactly what she’d expected to hear.

Picture 2She put her hand inside the ample pocket of her apron and pulled out four tiny cookbooks, all the same size, 4×5 inches. There was one for every season.

The covers are faded now and have many spots, mostly from my earlier mishaps while practicing. The pages are yellowed and dark around the edges. The recipes are in Italian. Each cover is titled Le Famose Ricette-radio di Lisa Biondi–The Famous Radio Recipes of Lisa Biondi. Lisa Biondi had a daily cooking show on Italian radio. It seems obvious her recipes were so popular they were bundled to create the four little books. The print date is 1964. Does that make them antiques? 

At any rate, I used the heck out of those miniature cookbooks. And every time I pulled one out, I thanked my grandmother. Even though she was never there when I said those words, I’m certain she heard them.

And that, my friends, is how I learned to cook.

On page 51 of The Autumn Kitchen is a recipe for uccelletti con polenta—little birds with polenta, a specialty of my native region. It consists of seasoned pork and sparrows on a spit rotisserie, grilled over a nice slab of polenta. The juices drip down onto the polenta and season it. Of course I don’t use that recipe. Sparrows aren’t exactly game birds in America. And I’m nothing if not a bird lover.

In telling you this story, I’m merely presenting the differences in world cultures and times, and hoping you hold back from posting harsh comments about Italians cooking and eating the small birds. I’m just reporting history here, not making it, trying to point out one of the varied and unusual ways of adding polenta to a meal. I highly suggest you refrain from asking your local butcher, “Do you have any sparrow today?”

Besides, it was Lisa Biondi’s recipe, not mine. Buon appetito.

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