Every winter, our mammalian kin pack on the blubber and slow down the pace of life so as not to expend valuable calories on wasted efforts. Winter is the season of laziness for woodland critters like those industrious squirrels who kick back and relax over a mountain of nuts.
In our fast-paced human lives, sometimes vacation days are the only times we have for a hearty, home-cooked meal. But I say we act more like bears who brace themselves for the cutting winter wind by first gathering ‘round a bowl of steamy, creamy winter porridge.
Now when most folks think porridge, they think oatmeal. And there’s nothing wrong with a bowl full of creamy steel-cut oats — especially after you mix in your favorite fix-ins (I like salty sardines and sharp cheddar).
But porridge is a useful umbrella term for many kinds of meal. Cream of Wheat is just name-brand wheat meal (a.k.a. farina). And polenta has historically referred to meal of all kinds like barley meal and spelt meal — and now almost exclusively refers to cornmeal.
The American South likes to claim ownership of the cornmeal they call grits. But corn porridge has been a New England tradition since before any European colonizer ever set foot on our rocky shores.
Chef Sherry Pocknett at Sly Fox Den Too has brought the traditional Wampanoag porridge called nausamp into the contemporary Rhode Island vernacular. But you can make some at home too. All you’ll need is some stone-ground cornmeal. And luckily, Rhode Island is teaming with it.
Samuel E. Perry Grist Mill in South Kingston grinds their own cornmeal. Gray’s Grist Mill in Adamsville used to make their own cornmeal (they closed this past year but will hopefully open again soon under new ownership). And Harry Here Farm in Exeter (where Gray’s purchased their flint corn from) now grinds their own cornmeal in Gray’s absence.
Rhode Island has plenty of local cornmeal. But finding it is a whole other issue. Dave’s Marketplace is as RI as a grocery store can get, but they don’t seem to carry many of the Rhode Island-ground options. They sell jonnycake mix (consisting mainly of cornmeal) from Drum Rock Products of Warwick. But that’s not necessarily what you want for some good corn porridge.
Harry Here Farm cornmeal is available at Lee’s Market in Westport, MA — if you’re willing to venture into Massachusetts to get your cornmeal. And there’s Kenyon’s Grist Mill (in West Kingston), whose cornmeal you can find on the “local” display at Stop & Shop. But, full disclosure, I bought a box of Kenyon’s for this article, and when I went to make breakfast the next morning, live moths flew out of the sealed box. So proceed at your own risk.
8-row flint corn is the traditional corn used for Rhode Island-style cornmeal. It’s made from that pretty, colorful corn your auntie uses to craft her Thanksgiving decor. But you can find Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal, Indian Head cornmeal and many varieties of polenta and grits at pretty much any grocery store.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between polenta and grits — well, there isn’t one. Legally they are interchangeable words. But culturally, grits are often white (and made from dent corn) and polenta is often yellow (and made from flint corn). Though the final result is still cornmeal.
Once you’ve got your cornmeal, you’ll need to think about what you want to put in it. Sly Fox Den makes their nausamp in the style of shrimp and grits, and it’s delicious. But a more traditional style of nausamp seems to be garnished with local nuts, seeds, and berries such as blueberries, cranberries, and black walnuts cooked with maple syrup.
But on a chill winter morning, you’ll want a hearty breakfast. So I recommend going savory rather than sweet with your corn porridge. Once you open the door to savory porridge, you’ll find a whole wide world of options to fill your bowl.
Thanksgiving traditions make modern Americans think turkey was a staple of Indigenous diets, but Rhode Island was an “ocean state” long before European colonization. So little necks, mussels, and kippered herring can be fun porridge fix-ins. A bit of seafood mixed with diced onion and topped with flaky salt makes for a pleasing combination.
This may sound strange, but Spam cut into matchsticks and fried on a cast iron pan may be the most delicious porridge fix-in I’ve ever had. Many Americans seem adverse to the canned wonder. But if Koreans, Hawaiians, and Minnesotans can all agree on the culinary staple, then there must be something to it. Right?
Once you choose to allow your imagination to roam, you’ll find that porridge can be as versatile a term as the word sandwich — a vessel for all kinds of food options.
For example, in American culture we think of fried rice as a dinner side dish. But in Asian households it’s often treated similar to morning porridge. So why not try scallions, bean sprouts, soy sauce, and a fried egg in your porridge?
The sky really is the limit when it comes to porridge. So don’t let the winter blues force you into a bland routine of darkness and cold when you can quickly whip up a dish that’s as exotic or nostalgic as your heart desires.