This piece was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality page on November 20, 2006.
I’m the kind of religious grump who spends way too much time during the year’s waning days grinding my teeth every time I encounter the secularization of the holiday season. I am offended because Santa’s toy-laden sleigh has replaced Mary’s womb as the bearer of the gift of Christmas. I’m even prone to rant over the secularization of Thanksgiving, which already is secular, but in my defense, when we sit down to a meal of turkey and all the trimmings, we should be giving thanks for more than football.
But I want this year to be different.
It may be that having three children under the age of five has mellowed me, or it may be a spiritual conviction, but I want to lose some of my grumpiness this year. While I still refuse to bow down to and worship the gods of Christmas commerce, I resolve to engage in joyful protest, and my first act of cheerful sedition will be to eat chestnut polenta on the day after Thanksgiving, the first day of secular Advent, the official (though by no means actual) beginning of the Christmas shopping season.
I first encountered the idea of chestnut polenta while visiting Giovanni Bolgeri, my second cousin once-removed. It was October, and we were hiking in the hills above his home in Viggiu, in Northern Lombardy, along the Swiss border.
Giovanni speaks broken English and I speak even less functional Italian, but one thing became clear as we walked through the chestnut forest: castagne—chestnuts—are a great treasure, a divine gift. In Italy that fall we ate canstgne roasted over an open fire à la Nat King Cole, but Giovanni assured me that the very best way to eat a chestnut was as polenta, which is how polenta was made—in this part of Italy anyway—before there was corn in Europe.
So I decided to learn how to make polenta di castagne. It took some effort, but with the help of the internet, I found a place that would sell me chestnut flour and I got some ideas for turning that flour into polenta. It turned out great. I now know why my Italian relatives make such a fuss over polenta di castagne.
A meal of chestnut polenta, served on the day after Thanksgiving, is a tasty act of political resistance and cultural commentary. While the chestnuts used to make my polenta are from an orchard in the state of Washington, chestnuts still grow wild in many parts of the world. This makes chestnuts a lot like seafood. Chestnuts come to us providentially, more an act of grace than a product of human agricultural ingenuity. In an ultimate sense, of course, this is true of all food, and chestnuts help to keep us mindful that the earth’s bounty is both seasonal and fragile and comes as a gift of divine favor.
Eating polenta di castagne also is political because it preserves a bit of regional taste that nearly is extinct. The enjoyment of a rare gem of Lombardian cuisine is an embrace of the benefits of citizenship in a global village that rejects the evils of economic globalism.
One of the great privileges of life in the Information Age is the freedom of food. Modern transportation, relative wealth, and the ease with which ideas are communicated around the globe enables people like me to enjoy the pleasure of eating food that is native to exotic locales. This is a wonderful treat, but the same system that has enabled this gastronomic exploration also seeks to limit culinary horizons by standardizing the world’s taste. The aim of international industrialized agricultural markets is not to get Italian style chestnut meal into my larder, but to create markets for cheaply made, value-added, over-processed, corn- and soy-based, sweetened, mass produced, rubberized, shrink-wrapped, giga-caloric bomblets that provide adequate—though unhealthy—sustenance for the body but starve the soul.
Eating an occasional meal of polenta di castagne in the company of loved ones reminds me that I can opt out of the globalized industrial food chain; eating chestnut polenta on a day when many of my fellow Americans turn to the shopping mall in search of the season’s meaning, keeps me mindful that I also can opt out of the secular holiday materialism that drives the wheels of commerce this time of year.
I hope a post-Thanksgiving feast of polenta di castagne will leave me less grumpy this year as I face down the secularization of Christmas. Who knows, perhaps, instead of cookies, I’ll leave some leftovers under the tree for Santa. Might do him some good, too.