Cornmeal Porridge, A Dish by Many Names
It's All Mush
Call it cornmeal porridge, polenta, grits, cou cou, mamaliga, or l'escaoutoun; these cornmeal mushes are produced and consumed in hundreds of ways in their respective regions. Some are sweet, some are savory, and some are both.
Ground up corn is a kitchen staple used beyond Its original or even currently cultivated ranges as the base for a variety of dishes. Unsurprisingly, the star dishes of corn cuisine are associated with the warmer regions where corn has thrived. For Native People all over the Americas, corn is a deeply cultural foodway. After all, it was domesticated originally by them. Indigenous peoples of the Americas most likely consumed nixtamalized corn, and the importance of this cannot be underestimated in any conversation about the origins of corn, but it is too vast a topic to cover here.
Before The Staff of Life: The Slop of Life
It would be impossible to pinpoint when the first porridge was cooked, but wherever grain was consumed, it was most certainly not far behind. Evidence points to the Levant, but rice cultivation in Asia was not far behind.
Before baking took off, porridge certainly figured heavily into Neolithic diets where candidates for the dish were consumed. Arguably mush was crucial for the development of civilization. A step along the way to bread. And even beer.
When corn was taken from the American continent to Europe, Africa, and Asia all of these regions ground the grain on their mills and set themselves to making porridge, in addition to using the cornmeal in their baking and cooking in general.
In the US, the main porridge dish from ground corn is grits (notably never referred to in the singular by Southerners), but cornmeal mush is widely consumed also. Even though grits and cornmeal mush are both from ground field corn, grits are only cornmeal pejoratively. Cornmeal is more fine, either being ground finer on the grist mill and/or screened on a finer screen to extract a finer product than grits. Grits are largely comprised of large granular, starchy, hard endosperm that takes awhile to cook. So grits are a cornmeal porridge, but they differ from cornmeal in texture, and thus application. They aren't precisely synonymous. The texture is different.
Grits can be eaten as a savory dish, or sweetened like rolled oats or cream of wheat. They are anachronistically considered a breakfast food from agrarian times, but stone-ground grits are not a quick food to prepare (if you prefer instant grits I guess that's better than no grits at all). Feelings about how grits should be served are strongly held in various regions, but rest assured, they get served with everything. Shrimp and grits is the flavor du jour for many, and this dish alone can be whipped up in practically innumerable ways. For my own shrimp and grits, I usually just do the grits with salt (added at the start in the grits) and butter (added when the grits are almost ready to serve). This simple treatment allows the flavor of the grits to shine, since the shrimp are often served in a roux (a sauce or gravy). The simple grits are a nice pairing with a rich, shrimpy gravy.
For some stand-alone grits as a starch, I'll throw in cheese (the only cheese I don't recommend is goat cheese: it doesn't melt) and/or cook the grits with some milk, cream (and probably water), or stock. these considerations are often made by looking in the fridge for partial containers when I'm cooking.
Coo coo (cou cou in Trinadad) is a cornmeal dish of congealed cornmeal porridge and (usually) okra. Known by many names all over the Carribean (fungie in Dominica), it presumably travelled with enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean. Indeed, there is an African cornmeal dish called Foo Foo. It is interesting to consider that corn travelled from the Americas to Africa, then an African dish travelled back to corn's native range with enslaved people. It is a story fraught with tragedy, but it also speaks to the strength and significance of culture and food.
Cou cou recipes usually call for a kind of cornmeal called polenta, a corn product that is usually somewhat coarse for cornmeal but a bit too fine to be called grits, Most of you probably know polenta as an Italian dish, and in fact, it predates Italy-its origins are Roman. Romans ground up whatever grains, beans, nuts or legumes they had into polenta. The did not have corn in Europe in Roman times. But when corn did arrive, the Italians grew it in volume and started making mush.
As did the Spainiards and the French, since the relatively warm Mediterranean climates there lent themselves to growing maize. In Romania, cornmeal mush is called mamaliga.
Wherever corn went, so did mush.
Before the advent of the green revolution and factory farming, corn was destined for human palettes, not primarily as animal feed or as an industrial food additive.
To be very clear, humanity greatly benefitted from the modernization of farming. Popular opinion leads many to believe that vegetables in the past were inferior to modern produce, and on the mean, they may be correct. But some things were lost: notably many local varieties of corn meant for human consumption.
At The Congaree Milling Company, we are proud to provide grits, cornmeal, and polenta ground in the old-fashioned way on a stone-burr mill.
Since my business is selling grits and cornmeal, I can say from casseroles to polenta bakes, there are thousands of ways to enjoy your cornmeal porridge.