Isolation Photo Project, Day 98: Grits, Polenta and Coo-Coo

By on June 28th, 2020 in Photography

I went down a rabbit hole this morning. I was perusing the website at Bone-In-Food and arrived upon their listing for cornmeal, which is listed at Corn Grits (Polenta). To my knowledge, only one of those is the appropriate description of what is being offered for sale.

I did some detective work on Google, skimmed an online gastronomic history paper, blog posts and found out some interesting facts regarding polenta and grits.

Even before maize arrived in Italy via the geography-challenged Columbus, ground dried chestnuts and farro were used in early Roman dishes that resembled the now popular polenta. The polenta was historically made from other grains. The familiar food we call polenta was not made from corn until hundreds of years after the Italian navigation genius, Christopher Columbus, got lost and landed in Cuba. Corn itself was not introduced into Europe until 1650.

Pulemntum was the staple cuisine of Roman soldiers, whose field ration consisted of two pounds of grain. The soldiers would toast the grain on a hot stone oven fire, crush it, and store it in their haversacks. When they stopped and constructed a bivouac, the soldiers would grind the grain to a gruel-like consistency, and boil it to form porridge. The soldiers would consume it in this form, or allow it to harden into a semi-leavened cake.

The word "grits" may be derived from "grist" which is the name indigenous people in Virginia gave to a ground corn dish they ate and shared with British colonists. In the American South, stone-ground cornmeal, or grits are a cornerstone of their cuisine. Creamy buttery grits are one of my favourite breakfast items but I also like it served with a bit of savoury crawfish on top. But even before the European explorers came West, the native peoples of North America were eating a dish of mashed corn, as corn was a prevalent crop.

Polenta can be prepared similarly and can look like grits, which is where the confusion may lie. But grits are made from a less sweet, starchy variety of corn. The grind is also different.

I grew up eating another dish made from corn that is older than grits and polenta; the Eastern Caribbean dish called coo-coo.

Cou-cou, coo-coo (as it is known in the Windward Islands), or fungi (as it is known in the Leeward Islands and Dominica) makes up part of the national dishes of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It consists mainly of cornmeal (corn flour) and okra (ochroes).

The geographical origin of okra is disputed but various experts suggesting a South Asian, Ethiopian and West African origin. Because these primary components are inexpensive, the dish became standard for many residents of the West Indies' early colonial history. Coo-coo derived from the islands' African ancestry and was a regular meal for slaves who were brought over from Africa to Barbados.

The ingredients are simple but for some, there is an art to making it.

A unique cooking utensil called a "cou-cou stick", or "fungi stick", is used in its preparation. A cou-cou stick is made of wood, and has a long, flat rectangular shape like a 1-foot-long (30 cm) miniature cricket bat.

By stirring, the fungi dish takes on a firm texture, and the fungi stick makes it easier to mix in a large pot.

When I was a boy living in Bequia, I remember visiting with my grandmother and watching her make coo-coo. My grandmother, like many people in the Windward Islands, customarily made her coo-coo without okra. She knew I didn't like the slimy fruit. Coo-coo without okra is called fungie, or fungi which are pronounced "foon-jee". My grandmother would make a large pot of fungi, store it somewhere cool, and during the week, she would serve rectangles of fried fungi with fried sprat, a type of small herring.

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