Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Harmless Ethnic Slur: "Polentone"

The supposed insult, "Polentone" ("Polentoni" in plural), is aimed at people of Northern Italian descent, in an apparent attempt to remind them of their times of struggle. During the hard times of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and perhaps at other times, people relied on Polenta to survive.

Hard times such as these affected every nation in Europe, and the world, during this period. Therefore, the "insult" doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The real root of this is from poor Southern Italians, who migrated north after the second world war in the millions, and were denigrated partly due to their extreme poverty. The real reason for this bigotry was that the Italian peninsula was put together in 1860 from numerous nations. This is why Italy has always been such a regional-minded country, at least since the fall of the Roman Empire.

While this term hardly strikes me as an insult, I do recall overhearing some guy in an Italian-American Yahoo chat room, speaking on the microphone, spouting off something about "Polenta, cornmeal, yuck!" This smart alec was probably benignly speaking out of turn, but it sort've ticked me off. This was something that people needed for their very survival. I mean, how high-minded can people be? Hard times seem to be coming back to America. Who knows, maybe he will get a taste of humility.

Polenta is indeed a dish made from boiled cornmeal. I don't think I've ever heard of anyone who didn't like it, except for the joker in the chat room. Although overwhelmingly associated with Northern Italy (not Southern Italy), it is also part of the history of the whole Alpine region (Alpine German, French, and Slavic), and also west to Corsica and as far east as Rumania. I was going to put a recipe here, but it's so easy to find them online. However, I do recommend the book 'The Classic Food of Northern Italy' (Anna Del Conte; 2004).

Many times in history, various people have co-opted negative terms aimed at them. It depends. If the "intent" was so negative, maybe they wouldn't. I don't think there are any Canadians who would take offense at being called a "Canuck." There are a few other examples like this. For whatever it's worth, "Terrone" ("Terroni") refers to a Southern Italian, and "Mezzogiorno" refers to Southern Italy or the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. I don't think they're considered negative terms anymore.