Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Polenta Story

Christmas Eve is one of the few traditional celebrations in my family.  All of my siblings come over and my dad makes polenta for dinner.  Polenta is a dish made from corn meal, water, cheese and butter.  It takes some time, since you need to heat and stir the ingredients until the mixture becomes mostly solid.  When my dad was growing up, his grandmother would make polenta in a huge copper pot whenever he and his parents came over for dinner.  To serve it, she would flip the pot upside down on a towel in the middle of the dining table.  Everyone would cut a piece from there.  In order to celebrate our French heritage – my grandparents emigrated from Europe in the early part of the twentieth century – my dad makes polenta on the holiday we always spend together.  It’s the one part of my French heritage that has survived through the years.  Unlike my grandmother, though, my dad serves the polenta on a plate.

Vive la France!
Part of Christmas Eve dinner is my dad’s recounting of the “polenta story,” as my sisters call it.  He tells us about how our great-grandfather was a stonemason back in France, but moved to New York on his own before our great-grandmother, great-aunt and grandfather followed him.  He tells us about growing up in New York and Connecticut himself and polenta dinners at his grandparents’ home.  We know how it goes, and it makes that first bite of polenta with tomato sauce taste all the more authentic (ignoring the fact that I think my dad uses the recipe from The Joy of Cooking.)

A few years ago, we sat around the table, unfolded our napkins, and sipped our drinks as we waited for my dad to start the story.  My dad cleared his throat and began. “Polenta comes from the Alps region, where the elevation was too high to grow wheat.  They grew corn instead, which is why they made polenta rather than pasta.  When Grandpa was back in Italy…”
            “I’m sorry, what?  You mean France, right Dad?” my sister Kate corrected.
            “Hmm?  Oh right, well, you see, Grandpa lived in France, but he was basically Italian,” my dad started to explain.
            Now my other siblings spoke up.  “Wait, no, Grandpa spoke French.”
            “Oh, maybe I have that confused.  Grandpa spoke French, but he lived in Italy.”
            “Wait, Grandpa wasn’t born in France?  Does that mean we're not French?”
            “We’re Italian?

Viva Italia...?
As it turns out, polenta is, in fact, more Italian than French.  My grandfather did speak French, but he was born in Pont Bizet, a town in the Alps that may or may not have belonged to France at the time of his birth.  It’s near Aosta, Italy (where there is a Piazza Chanoux - we're hoping we're distantly related to its namesake).  It turns out that my family might be a little more Italian than French.  Our last name is undoubtedly French – you don’t see too many Chanouxs in the Italian phonebook – but my grandfather’s given first name, Octavio, had a more Italian sound to it.

I've circled the largest city near where my grandfather was born.
Note its proximity to the France-Italy border.  Also note which side it is on.
Our more recent Christmas Eve tradition has been listening to the re-telling of the polenta story, but with questions of geographic and national origin somewhat glossed over.  Whether we're wishing each other a Joyeux Noel or a Buon Natale, we get to celebrate together and the polenta is delicious!

What are your holiday traditions?


  1. I was about to comment on the polenta e Italiana thing, but then you mentioned it. It's cool that your name is on a Piazza in Italy! Whether or not you're related to the people (sometimes people took names from the place they lived), it's pretty cool.

    Family heritage searches for Asian families is quite difficult...especially since such stories usually aren't shared in my family...

    neamoins, joxeux noel, Laura!

  2. Merci Kevin! I've heard from a couple people who were wondering why I was calling polenta a French food until they kept reading. :) Someday I do want to visit Piazza Chanoux. It would be really fun to see!
    I hope your winter break is starting off well! Thanks for reading and commenting!