Papal Polenta

October 11 marks a newer feast honoring Saint Pope John XXIII (his nickname was "The Smiling Pope"). His papacy was from 1958 to 1963. He died at the age of 81 from stomach cancer. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 3, 2000, and canonized April 27, 2014 by Pope Francis.

I found it interesting that his feast day is not the date of his death (June 3rd), but October 11, which marked the opening of the Vatican II council in 1962, the most memorable part of his short papacy.

St. Pope John XXIII was born 1881 as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in a village called Sotto il Monte, north of Italy in the hills around Bergamo in the Lombardy region. For more information, see CatholicSaints.Info which includes a list of writings and other outside links about this pope.

St. Pope John XXIII came from a long family line of hard working farmers that toiled the land, but who were also rich in their faith and kept close ties with family. It was these deep roots with Faith, family, and the land that helped him through his life.

Two of my cookbooks both mention his favorite "comfort" food was Polenta, remiscent to his peasant upbringing. The Cook's Blessings by Demetria Taylor (1965) shared this version of polenta. The other cookbook, Buon Appetito, Your Holiness by Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini, which treats foods from various papacies (I only hesitate a glowing recommendation of this book because it includes the so-called Pope Joan) shares some deeper insight into why this would be a favorite food:

So after he was elected pope,
People were interested to learn that in the frescoed Vatican halls the Holy Father continued his simple way of life, dedicating his early morning hours to study and prayer, and turning in for bed early in the evening, immediately after the television news. The world found out that immediately after the conclave the pontifical tailors busied themselves letting out the sacred vestments to accommodate Pope John's stout figure, and that in the gleaming kitchens, sisters of the order of St. Francis of Assisi from Bergamo prepared dishes from local peasant tradition for him, as they had done at home for their fathers and brothers: vegetables with a little meat, occasionally cheese such as Taleggio or Robiola, and, sometimes, extravagant and delicious cheese sent from France by friends who remembered the tastes of the apostolic nuncio Angelo Roncalli. But the Pope's ultimate moment of gustatory nostalgia, with its baggage of memories, history and life experience, was when the golden-yellow polenta arrived, as it did regularly, from the Bergamo countryside, in white canvas sacks. Before the empty sacks were returned to sender, the cornmeal was turned into a magical, steaming version of sunlight, shining on the table of a very noble peasant Pope.
Papal Polenta

4 cups water
1/2 pound coarse-ground cornmeal
a pinch of salt

Traditionalists say one must boil the water in a copper pot (over a wood fire). Add salt, then gradually sprinkle in the cornmeal slowly while stirring continuously, but gently. The cornmeal breaks down slowly, so stirring gently helps prevent lumps. After all the cornmeal is added, the polenta can be stirred with a little more gusto.

"In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, polenta was used instead of bread, as a base for spreads and toppings."
There are a variety of ways to make polenta. Besides the links above:
Polenta with Milk -- Piping hot polenta and cold milk was the traditional midday meal for country folk.

Polenta "Cunsa" -- Dressed polenta was spooned out of the copper pot and served in a big bowl with melted butter aromatized with garlic and grated cheese.

Polenta "Rostida" -- Roast polenta was cold polenta cut into slices and grilled in a frying pan which onion had softened in butter.

Polenta "Pastizzata" -- Layered polenta pie with tomatoes, the big dish for special occasions: alternate layers of polenta, tomato sauce, sausage, minced pork and mushrooms cooking in a baking pan, finishing with the tomato sauce and grated cheese. Bake for about half an hour.
(Taken from Buon Appetito, Your Holiness by Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini, 1998, New York: Arcade Publishing.)

One of my favorite stories involves another food connection with this Pope regarding apples. It could be apocryphal, or Father Z says it was actually Benedict XIV. I've always heard it was John XXIII when he was Apostolic Nuncio.

And so, the way I heard this apocryphal story, at the time St. Pope John XXIII was Archbishop Roncalli and Apostolic Nuncio to Paris, he attended a banquet and was seated next to woman who was wearing a plunging neckline, sharing too much décolletage. During the dinner, the Archbishop kept trying to give the women an apple from the centerpiece. She politely declined several times, yet he kept insisting she have it. Finally she asked "Your Excellency, why do you want me to have this apple?" The Archbishop replied, "It wasn't until Eve ate the apple that she realized she was naked."

Was this Benedict XIV or John XXIII? Probably Father Z is right, but I think since this feast day falls around apple harvest season, we can recall this story with our apple dumplings and pies. I have a dear priest friend relate while he was in seminary that several fellow seminarians would pass out apples to the co-eds sunning themselves in the common areas, recalling this story.

Apples and polenta -- both are foods appropriate to this season of harvest time.

Saint Pope John XXIII, pray for us. Pin It


  1. I loved reading this - very interesting as I know very little about Blessed John XXIII.

  2. Wow, I learned so much reading this! Thanks for this post :)