Grits versus Polenta – What’s the Difference?
Ever wondered what the differences are between grits and polenta? Ari did - please read on for what he found out. -Jillian
What, you would be right to wonder, is the difference between polenta and grits? Even the most casual observer can tell the two have a lot in common. Both are made from ground dried corn. Both are boiled with water and salt ‘til they become thick porridges. Both take a long time to cook. Both evoke strong memories and big emotional eruptions in people who grew up on them.
In general—and this is a generalization—traditional grits are much more coarsely ground. Polenta is pretty frequently more finely ground. I say traditional grits because the commercial stuff is far more finely done and doesn’t really count as grits for me. Even coarse ground polenta is going to be much finer than medium stone ground grits. “Why?” would be a very logical question to ask, but I don’t really have any good explanation for why Italians would have ended up with a finer grind than Southerners. If you have one, email me and let’s see what we can figure out.
2. Lime or No Lime
There was historically another technical difference in the production of grits and polenta. That is, up until the early years of the 20th century. Until then it seems clear that grits—like most dried corn products in the Americas—were made from dried corn that had been cooked with quick-lime or wood ash, then re-dried and later ground. While polenta was also made from maize, Italians never adopted the North American tradition of first curing the corn. This had some influence on flavor and texture, and a lot of impact on nutrition. So, historically, the two really were different—if related—versions of the same sort of dish. “Corn cousins,” I suppose you could call them.
Much to my dismay, this difference seems to have pretty much passed into history, somewhere along around the 1920s or '30s. American mills apparently stopped curing the corn for grits, and went straight through from fresh to dry to ground, i.e, grits. I should tell you that this change came as something of a shock to me. Since every book I’ve ever read on the subject says that grits are cured first with the quick lime to make them into hominy, then ground, I confess I was confounded and frustrated when I discovered that this change had taken place and that I hadn’t known about it. It’s my own fault of course. If you believe in anything too much, you’re going to go astray at times. And much as I love books, just because information is in print doesn’t make it right.
Interestingly, the historical relationships with the people who relied, respectively, on grits and polenta, were pretty much polar opposites. Basically, it’s like this. Corn has been here in the Americas for millennia. African and European immigrants (some arriving by force, others by choice) came later. In Italy, the people were there for ages, the corn came only after Columbus made his now famous trip.
In the Americas, grits were grounded; it was the people who proved transient. Our ancestors came to a continent where corn was often considered a god, and was also the centerpiece of many a meal. It’s we—Americans of non-North American origin, not the corn—that are the aliens, late arrivals who developed their own version of what was already well known to natives.
Polenta, on the other hand, is an American interloper on the scene of Italian cuisine, arriving only in the 17th century, thousands of years after the seeds of good eating had long since sprouted on the boot shaped peninsula. There, the people stayed put and polenta arrived at their doorstep.
4. Cultural Connotations
Most modern Americans really only know polenta from its relatively recent appearance on restaurant menus; few feel all that strongly one way or another. Generally, we either like it, or, at worst, we ignore it. But for many northern Italians, on the other hand, polenta carries an enormous emotional charge. Italians seem to be to have sort of a strange love-hate relationship with polenta in much the same way that the Irish often disdain English influence, yet have clearly adopted all sorts of British routines into their daily lives.
For some, polenta is really the height of good eating. In Paula Wolfert’s Grains and Greens, she quotes a Venetian cab driver, who proudly states: “Polenta is our bread. We cannot imagine a meal without it.” But for others, polenta conjures of images of abject poverty. In A Tuscan Kitchen, chef Pino Luongo writes that, “Tuscany was so poor that bread became the food of the rich and polenta the food of the poor.” Polenta was more drudgery than delight. In Carol Field’s In Nonna's Kitchen, Lina Vitali, who grew up in the Valtellina, says that poor people: “. . . lived on polenta. They ate polenta boiled with goat's milk in the morning. They ate polenta with butter and salami, or polenta with a salad of cicoria for their other meal. I lost track of how many ways polenta could be made in Valtellina.” Polenta is so much a part of Italian culture that it even serves as food for prejudicial humor. Southerners (who eat pasta not polenta) refer to Northerners as "polentoni,” literally, “ big polentas,” the Italian equivalent of country bumpkins.
Grits, in contrast, seem to cross class and cultural lines. Southern grits stories focus on family, not on extreme poverty they way Italian accounts of polenta do. Regardless of race, religion or economic origin, almost everyone reminisces about them. John Taylor, one of Carolina’s premier cooks and culinary historians: “Rich people here always ate grits. If you look at plantation journals and big fancy dinners in 1820 their fancy meals were mimicking European court food. But I can guarantee you there was a pot of grits in the kitchen.”
So what’s the difference now?
Ironically, in our own times, polenta has been picked up as a darling of good eating, while grits still get relatively little attention. Polenta, in modern day America, is perceived as a sign of cachet, not poverty. To my point of view, if you’re not self-conscious about your cooking, go with grits. If you want to impress someone, make a pot of polenta. Either way, enjoy! - Ari