Polenta, Grits and Hominy: Setting the Record Straight Once and for All June 23 2020
Polenta, Grits, and Hominy: What's the Difference?
After having read two different articles online by two different authors in one week that tried (unsuccessfully) to delineate the difference between polenta and grits, I felt compelled to step into this discussion and set the record straight.
Polenta: a European take on grits or maybe vice-versa
First, let's discuss polenta. One fact was stated correctly in both (practically identical) articles in question: polenta predates corn's arrival in Italy. Before corn (Zea mays) was imported from the American continent to Europe, Europeans were making porridge out of a variety of grains and legumes. Polenta is Roman in origin. Buckwheat, farro (ancient wheat) spelt, and chickpeas were all foods used to make polenta. The name given to this dish of mush when it was prepared in the place we today call Italy was "polenta." Polenta is referred to by other names by other European cultures: In Romania it is called mamaliga, in France it is called l'escatoun.
Today it is not specified whether polenta is milled from field corn, it is assumed that it is, although some mills are still producing buckwheat and other varieties polenta.
To summarize: polenta is a porridge made (generally) from corn. It is often finished with cheese. It could be fairly stated that polenta is Italian grits. If you were to serve grits to an Italian person, the would probably say, "oh, polenta."
Here comes my first criticism of the articles in question: They asserted that polenta was made from yellow corn exclusively. While yellow corn is the most popular color of corn for polenta, many kinds of local varieties of corn of many different hues are milled into polenta. White corn polenta, yellow corn polenta, and even corn with a red pericarp (outer covering) are milled into polenta in Italy. My mill has taken a liberty with the term and milled polenta out of blue corn, which probably doesn't happen in Italy.
The second thing I took issue with in the aforementioned articles was the assertion that polenta is coarser than grits. Although some local variations of polenta in Italy are undoubtedly coarser than some kinds of grits milled in the US, I would say the exact opposite: grits are generally coarser than polenta. Some stone-ground grits are nigh-on cracked corn. I haven't seen any evidence that polenta is coarser than grits, but one must remember that food ways in Italy are famously localized and specific.
Which brings us to grits. Grits are an American invention that uses a Native American grain and the European technology of the grist mill. Grits, like modern day polenta, are ground up corn. They are commonly made from all kinds of field corn: white, yellow, and even blue and red corn, not to mention dozens of heirloom varieties that don't fit into any color variety so easily. Corn is a vast topic, and I cannot even summarize its history here, but Gerard Paul at manyeats.com has done a great job with his informative and concise article here.
Grits are a food associated with the American South. They are commonly served at breakfast (which is a bit archaic, since coarse stone-ground grits are not a quickly prepared food). Grits almost always get salt and butter, and often grated cheese. Grits make a great starch at any meal, in my opinion.
Native Americans probably didn't eat a lot of anything that resembles grits as we recognize the dish today. This is because corn went hand in hand with the process of nixtamalization in Native American culture.
One of the products of nixtamalization is hominy, which is its own type of food. Hominy and corn and grits aren't always precisely the same thing, although all three foods are corn.
One thing is for sure: hominy is nixtamalized corn. Let me be quite clear: no nixtamal, no hominy. Period. So if your grits don't contain any nixtamalized corn, they aren't "hominy grits", they're just grits.
The articles that I'm criticizing here both asserted that hominy is white corn. That's just wrong as a flat generalization, even if most hominy is made from white corn.
Nixtamal is portmanteau of the word "ashes" and "flour" in the Nahuatl family of languages, which is the language of the Aztecs.
Those of you who are familiar with hominy are probably wondering why the hominy you are familiar with is so not like flour. Let's forget about the flour part of nixtamal and concentrate on the ash part.
Nixtamal is created by changing the Ph of corn (enter the wood ash) to create (ostensibly) extensibility and nutrition. Unnixtamalized corn flour won't stick together for dough, and it also won't provide you with any niacin. Corn tortillas are made from nixtamalized corn (usually masa harina, nixtamalized corn flour). Although it is impossible to know what Native Americans knew, since their culture was actively and passively destroyed by settlers, including numerous scrolls from Aztec literature, nixtamal was not uniformly adopted by the settlers, and it was never adopted by Europeans.
There was a price to pay for this ignorance. The American South, Italy, Africa, and all the places corn went were plagued by a disease called pellagra. A diet of corn and not much else will eventually result in death precluded by dermatitis, diarrhea, and dementia. Collectively known as "the four d's"
Ok, don't be scared, corn is actually really good for you. Check out the new findings on resistant starch and gut biome. Early settlers and Europeans who grew corn didn't suffer from pellagra until profound deprivation hit in the form of Reconstruction in the American south, and extreme poverty in Italy and the other corn growing regions of Europe and Africa. Author's note: Reconstruction was undoubtedly a positive thing in regards to equality and human rights for formerly enslaved people. The vilification of Reconstruction may be attributed to the "Lost Cause" and an attempt by Confederate sympathizers to rewrite history and whitewash slavery.
The epidemic was worsened unwittingly by milling technology that allowed the corn germ to be removed from milled goods (de-germed) thus removing the naturally available nutrient from corn. This was great for eliminating food spoilage, but it rendered the products devoid of nutrient.
There is no evidence that Native Americans ever suffered from pellagra due to the chemistry of nixtamal.
Although I feel confident I cleared up a few misconceptions, undoubtedly I raised more questions. As it is so often in life, there is plenty of messiness here. I encourage you to do some of your own research and come to your own conclusions. But if there is one thing I insist upon, don't call any old bowl of grits "hominy grits." Remember: no nixtamal, no hominy.