The “three sisters” – corn, beans and squash – are the key crops of a method of companion planting first used by indigenous North Americans. All grow symbiotically and are harvested at a similar time to provide fresh produce or larder goods when dried and preserved.
Genetically we have moved a long way from the origins of these vegetables. In regards to growth and disease resistance, huge progress has been made; as far as nutrition and resilience is concerned, maybe not so much.
Corn is a perfect snapshot of this as most of what we buy now – both fresh and dried – comes from sweet corn varieties. The varieties that were cultivated centuries ago were starchier and the kernels much more hardy. Several years ago I began milling maize in Tasmania from older varieties such as painted corn. We ruined several mills in the process, as the kernels can be so firm they destroy the grinding mechanisms. But the end result was like night and day in regards to polenta.
Traditionally, polenta is not the name used for the actual ground maize, or corn meal, but rather it is the dish that results from cooking the meal in stock and, often, finishing it with various cheeses. The polenta that I made from the painted corn had a much more complex and creamier consistency, plus it didn’t leave a heavy feeling in the stomach after eating it.
Cooking polenta as a central part of a meal or the vehicle for protein is commonly associated with Italian cuisine. I have had very memorable meals where the finished polenta is tipped on a board down the centre of the table to be used almost to bind the rest of the components that are presented. It’s a foundation of a meal but also a dish itself.
Tracing the origins of corn through North America and into central Mesoamerica becomes a parallel study in anthropology. It’s extraordinary how many cuisines it has become the foundation of and how its influence has spread beyond food. But sitting down to a plate of cheesy polenta is as simplistic a joy as comfort food can provide.