I Never Thought This Much About Corn Until I Decided to Host Thanksgiving


It first came up when Giacomo’s family decided they wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving. I like Giacomo’s family. I like that they want to drive all the way up to Milan to spend a weekend with us so that I won’t have to celebrate Thanksgiving without any family. I’m not going to be able to make a traditional American whole turkey in my tiny kitchen. But really, that’s not the problem.

The problem is whether I can make a decent cornbread from polenta corn.

Corn is important. I never thought about it before, because I come from a culture of rice and processed food. I never thought about how much corn is in the food I eat and where I can find it.

Luckily, there is tons of corn in Italy. It was brought here from the Americas and became intensely popular as a grain and survives today in various types of food traditional to Italy, like polenta or these cookies made of corn flour called “meliga”.

It got me thinking about corn. I used to think if you dried eating corn, you’d get cornmeal and popcorn. I know that I’m wrong, but no one is telling me otherwise. When I try to find out, the books I read overarchingly use the word “corn” and don’t refer to varieties. Or, if you search on the internet for one thing, it doesn’t have all the information.

Are grits and polenta the same?

Nope. Grits come from nixtamalized corn. Polenta does not. I had to look at several websites to get this information, because it’s not clear. For example, theKitchn says that polenta comes from flint corn and that grits come from dent corn. This means nothing to me, not if they function the same way. Google says that grits come from hominy and polenta doesn’t, and that hominy is nixtamalized corn.

Is hominy a different type of corn?

No. Wikipedia tells me that hominy isn’t a type of corn, but the name of the field corn that has been nixtamalized. This is confusing to me, because I remember reading as a kid that European settlers who used corn as grain ended up malnourished because they didn’t know to nixtamalize their corn (soak it in an alkaline solution) the way natives did, and therefore didn’t get essential proteins. I assumed based on what I was reading that they were using a different kind of corn called hominy, not using regular field corn to make something called hominy by the process of nixtamalization.

Can I make cornbread from polenta?

Yes. Nancy Silverton, de facto Italian culinary ambassador, lists cornmeal or polenta interchangeably in her recipes. And yes, I trust this tiny note in a published cookbook more than I trust the internet.

It was confusing to try to search for definitions online because it’s not clear based on labeling in the store what kind of corn product you’re getting. The grocery aisle in Italy has ground corn labeled “polenta”, instant polenta, and yet more bags labeled “farina de mais.” I couldn’t tell you whether farina de mais is more finely ground polenta corn, or cornstarch, called “amido de mais,” because in the U.S., cornflour can mean either of the two things. Rather than try to understand brands and labels, I look in the bag and see if it looks like cornmeal and hope my cornbread doesn’t turn out gloopy or dry and crunchy.

Can I make my own cornmeal, DIY-style?

Actually, yea. Popcorn doesn’t appear to be so different from field corn, at least if the internet is to be believed. There are tons of recipes for polenta ground by hand from popping corn or polenta made with already-popped popcorn. SeriousEats even has a kind of guide for grinding your own cornmeal.

Are you going to give me a recipe?

Sigh. Do you ever read blogs for the writing, just to find out what’s going on in a person’s life?