Friday, May 3, 2013

Daniel Defoe, Cornmeal, Crusoe And Polenta

Fig.1. Crusoe sits down to eat with some dinner guests, notice the bread on the table.

A few weeks ago, while Facebooking, I stumbled upon a wonderful photographer by the name of Dinah Freed.  Her photo series, entitled Fictitious Dishes, was imbued of a subject matter I myself dabbled in, albeit on a literary level.  Freed’s work involves taking photos of food and meal settings based on a series of books; have a look and you’ll better understand.
During my time at Concordia University, I was enrolled in a class entitled, Literature During the Restoration Period.  One of this class’s assignments involved an analysis of Daniel Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe, which I read cover to cover with all the proper haste attributed to a body of work as enthralling, such as it is.  What stood out first and foremost for me amidst Crusoe’s island seclusion was how he fed himself, and the lengths to which Defoe went to make certain his literary food content was accurate.  With this in mind, I proposed to my professor that I might analyze Defoe’s melding of food, sustenance and protagonist, and how it all fit in within the pretext of a British movement bent on colonizing everything in its path. She said yes.
To make a long story short, Crusoe was shipwrecked on an island.  He had a choice: he could either live or die; Crusoe chose the path all conquering Brits took 400 years ago, and took it upon himself to colonize his island. 
One of the first things a colony needs is food, even a one-man colony has to eat. Fish on an island goes without saying, but Defoe went further than animal, reaching into the world of fauna: vegetables, grains and legumes all sowed, reaped and harvested by Crusoe. (and later with help from his man Friday.)  One of the main staples in Crusoe’s thatched ‘cantina’ was corn meal.
Defoe crammed Crusoe with the zeal and resolve of a true, conquering British colonist, and colonize he did: the corn on Crusoe’s shipwrecked boat was planted, harvested and replanted until Crusoe had a corn field big enough to feed an entire fleet of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.

However, this was a great encouragement to me, and I foresaw that, in time, it would please God to supply me with bread. And yet here I was perplexed again, for I neither knew how to grind or make meal of my corn, or indeed how to clean it and part it; nor, if made into meal, how to make bread of it; and if how to make it, yet I knew not how to bake it. These things being added to my desire of having a good quantity for store, and to secure a constant supply, I resolved not to taste any of this crop but to preserve it all for seed against the next season; and in the meantime to employ all my study and hours of working to accomplish this great work of providing myself with corn and bread.
It might be truly said, that now I worked for my bread. I believe few people have thought much upon the strange multitude of little things necessary in the providing, producing, curing, dressing, making, and finishing this one article of bread.
First, I had no plough to turn up the earth - no spade or shovel to dig it. Well, this I conquered by making me a wooden spade, as I observed before; but this did my work but in a wooden manner; and though it cost me a great many days to make it, yet, for want of iron, it not only wore out soon, but made my work the harder, and made it be performed much worse. However, this I bore with, and was content to work it out with patience, and bear with the badness of the performance. When the corn was sown, I had no harrow, but was forced to go over it myself, and drag a great heavy bough of a tree over it, to scratch it, as it may be called, rather than rake or harrow it. When it was growing, and grown, I have observed already how many things I wanted to fence it, secure it, mow or reap it, cure and carry it home, thrash, part it from the chaff, and save it. Then I wanted a mill to grind it sieves to dress it, yeast and salt to make it into bread, and an oven to bake it; but all these things I did without, as shall be observed; and yet the corn was an inestimable comfort and advantage to me too. All this, as I said, made everything laborious and tedious to me; but that there was no help for. Neither was my time so much loss to me, because, as I had divided it, a certain part of it was every day appointed to these works; and as I had resolved to use none of the corn for bread till I had a greater quantity by me, I had the next six months to apply myself wholly, by labour and invention, to furnish myself with utensils proper for the performing all the operations necessary for making the corn, when I had it, fit for my use.
My next concern was to get me a stone mortar to stamp or beat some corn in; for as to the mill, there was no thought of arriving at that perfection of art with one pair of hands. To supply this want, I was at a great loss; for, of all the trades in the world, I was as perfectly unqualified for a stone-cutter as for any whatever; neither had I any tools to go about it with. I spent many a day to find out a great stone big enough to cut hollow, and make fit for a mortar, and could find none at all, except what was in the solid rock, and which I had no way to dig or cut out; nor indeed were the rocks in the island of hardness sufficient, but were all of a sandy, crumbling stone, which neither would bear the weight of a heavy pestle, nor would break the corn without filling it with sand. So, after a great deal of time lost in searching for a stone, I gave it over, and resolved to look out for a great block of hard wood, which I found, indeed, much easier; and getting one as big as I had strength to stir, I rounded it, and formed it on the outside with my axe and hatchet, and then with the help of fire and infinite labour, made a hollow place in it, as the Indians in Brazil make their canoes. After this, I made a great heavy pestle or beater of the wood called the iron-wood; and this I prepared and laid by against I had my next crop of corn, which I proposed to myself to grind, or rather pound into meal to make bread.

Infinite labour is exactly the mental picture Defoe means to paint.  Defoe’s detail in outlining his character’s woes and goals calls to realization just how much we take for granted, as well as what we’re capable of doing if determined and goal oriented.  Faced with a daunting ‘to do list’, Crusoe is un-wavered in his tasks, and ultimately, succeeds in making corn bread, as the author himself succeeds in emboldening his audience with a juxtaposed awareness of humility toward what we eat, along side an obnoxiously greedy approach toward hoarding and conquering other lands.  
To say we take our food for granted now would be an understatement. The hardships Crusoe endured just so he could have bread are hardships still endured by the majority of people living in impoverished countries right now.  An ounce of culinary humility would do us well, and there’s plenty of humility in every spoon of corn meal.

Fig.2. Polenta with liver sauce and mozzarella.

Polenta With Liver Sauce And Mozzarella
Serves 6 to 8

In Italy, the importance of corn bread exists as a testament to the ingenuity of mothers and grandmothers alike.  In times of strife and extreme hardship, no food better served a society better than cornmeal. (Except for Ireland during the potato famine. The Irish were given cornmeal without any instructions on how to cook it, and as such, could do nothing with it. The mass hysteria and desperation of millions of starving Irish dismissed cornmeal as a useless alternative to potatoes.)  Traditional polenta was pretty bland 100 years ago in Italy, salt was very hard to come by, so the nonna’s figured out that tastiness would have to come from the top: Enter tomato sauce.  And since meat was also scarce, the less expensive parts of the animals found their way in the sauce, and on top of the polenta: the offal, the parts of the animal with the most pronounced flavor, spread over a bland base worked perfectly.  And it still works today as most Italians will tell you that polenta with liver sauce is something that most of us traditionalists look forward to every year. The mozzarella is my addition.

1 cup finely ground Corn meal
1 tbsp salt

For the Sauce:

8 cups of tomato sauce (we always use the ‘Sunday Sauce’ when making polenta.)
2 large onions, diced
8 to 10 Liver sausages-out of their casing. (you can buy these at most Italian grocery stores)
Sliced mozzarella, fresh

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a large pot.  Once the water is boiling, add the polenta in a thin stream while stirring constantly with a whisk. Once all the polenta is in, replace the whisk with a wooden spoon and stir until thick. (The polenta should be the consistency of thick oatmeal and it should pull away from the sides of the pot.) Spoon the polenta into a cookie sheet or aluminum rounds (anything thin and oven proof will do) and set aside.
Add some olive oil to a pan set over medium high heat. Add the onions and the liver and cook until tender, do not over cook, about 10 minutes. Add the liver and onions to the tomato sauce and mix. Spoon the sauce over the polenta, top with the mozzarella slices, and place in a 350 degree, pre-heated oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until hot and cheese melts  Sprinkle with Parmiggiano Reggiano and some chili flakes and mangia.

Fig.3. I like using these small aluminum trays, but going old school and spreading it out on a large wooden cutting board is fun too.

No comments: