Fresh Corn Polenta

Corn. Sweet zea mays. A summer ingredient with a Thanksgiving-y sensibility. Every continent has a distinct agricultural history, but they all have one thing in common: staple foods. 

Before Christopher Columbus washed up on the shores of the Bahamas, the flora and fauna of the Old World (Europe, Asia, Africa) and the New World (Americas) hadn't been in contact since the continents were all one giant landmass. As a result of the continental drift, the lands had separate evolutionary trajectories, and the ecologic results made for major cultural differences that propagated into the modern era. Available crops and climate determined whether a tribe would revert to farming or to hunting and gathering. This is known among anthropologists as a subsistence strategy, or the way in which people acquire food and how that characterizes tribal activities (Malpezzi and Clements, 133).

For example, the Moriori, a farming tribe from a tropical Polynesian climate, colonized the Chatham Islands, an archipelago in which temperatures ranged strictly between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Here, the farmers were unable to cultivate the tropical crops they were used to and turned to hunting and gathering what was available, like seals and fish. This meant two things: the Moriori had no crop stores to support anyone who couldn't hunt and gather full-time (artisans, military, monarchy), and never had to develop any technology beyond what was required to ensnare their easy prey. The result? They were decimated by the Maori, colonizers of Northern New Zealand, a land warm enough to cultivate tropical crops. The Maori used their own easily-accumulated crop stores to feed armies and craftsmen, developing powerful tools and infrastructure (Diamond, 55-56). 

In 1492, hundreds of millions of years after the continents drifted apart from one another, seven million years after we evolved from the great apes and started hunting animals and gathering plants, and thousands of years after we domesticated plants and animals for farming and production (Diamond, 86), Europe and Africa had never seen an ear of corn. The Columbian Exchange, or the mass exchange of food, diseases, people and ideas following Columbus's voyage, brought the nutrient-dense staple crop to the Old World. The Old World also gained, notably, the potato, which is so rich in vitamins and minerals that it could theoretically make up a human's entire diet, needing only to be supplemented with Vitamin A and D (Nunn and Qian, 163-169). The Irish were already heavy dairy eaters (so there's the A and D), and the potato grew beautifully in the Irish climate. What started as a boon ended in disaster, however; the great potato fueled great population growth, and that potato-reliant population famously floundered when a fungal disease struck the entire potato crop. 

But back to corn. Italians, in 1492, had already been eating grain porridge they called puls for years, going all the way back to the time of the Etruscans, the ancient inhabitants of what is now Tuscany. Pre-dating even bread in the Italian diet, puls evolved into corn polenta, as Europeans embraced the freshly-arrived maize from the New World, and it maintained its status as an Italian nutritional staple until, ironically, Italians started immigrating to North America in search of a better life, and eagerly abandoned their monotonous consumption of the "meat of the poor", as polenta was known, for a more diverse diet (Malpezzi and Clements, 134).

Making the polenta from fresh corn instead of the traditional dried corn (cornmeal) yields a much sweeter, fresher starchy base for almost anything your heart desires. The mush should have stability, like mashed potatoes. Plan on one and a half ears of corn per serving. Though this is obviously best made with New Jersey's sweet summer corn, you can also use frozen corn - one ear equals about a three-quarter cup of frozen kernels.