Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More alike than different...

Kasey's making a Turkey Guacamole Sandwich today - roasted turkey, fresh guacamole, dill havarti cheese, tomato and a bit of red onion and The Greenhouse - our Powerhouse plus guacamole!

A number of years ago I spent some time in the mountains of northern Portugal working with a group of women's cooperatives who raised sheep for fleece to produce wool garments and grew flax which they spun into linen. It was the first time I had traveled outside of the United States but, in the oddest way, I felt perfectly at home. Having grown up in a rural community in the Blue Ridge mountains half a world away, there were some remarkable similarities that put me right at ease.

The people were warm, self-sufficient and pragmatic - very much like my mother's family. And the men were not above baiting the foreign girl drinking aquadente (a wicked brandy made from grape skins. The best ports are made by fortifying wine with aquadente distilled from the skin of grapes crushed for that specific wine) and lighting her cigarettes with kitchen matches. It was the sort of playful sparring Paw-Paw and I had enjoyed (and which put poor Granny's nerves on edge).

I was struck by the similarities in food. There was a delicious cornbread that we bought from a truck that drove through the village every other day. This cornbread was dense and rich and sour. I think they must have slightly fermented cornmeal mash before baking the bread, maybe even collecting wild yeast in the processes for leavening. There was some type of dark green leafy vegetable that grew on a stalk and was cut as needed. Even in February there were stalks that had grown to three or four feet, covered with the scars of harvest and still a few leaves ready to be cut. It might have been collards or at least a distant European cousin. Even the big planks of bacalhau (salted cod) was stored and used very much like the precious country ham I grew up eating.

On my next trip I took a small old-timey Appalachian cookbook and a set of measuring cups and spoons as a hostess gift. We sat together and went through the recipes translating things like "oleo" and "a dash". She was as surpised as I had been in the similarities of our tradional cuisines.

Which brings me to polenta, that sublime, rich northern Italian staple. That versatile grain which can be prepared savory or sweet, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The golden base upon which the most sophisticated sauces are ladled in five star restaurants.

It's grits, people. It's coursely ground cornmeal. The same stuff that has been produced in water mills all across the southern United States since colonial times. The ubiqitious dollop of hot grainy mash served with a knob of butter on every breakfast plate south of the Mason Dixon line. There is white corn and yellow corn. Grits are generally made from white degerminated corn, polenta from yellow degerminated corn.

I'm gobsmacked.