When I lived in Florence in the early 1960s, for a time I shared a maid named Aurelia with my painter friend, Flo Shoul.
Aurelia, a small woman with a hooked nose and a hump on her back, came from the Florentine suburb of San Casciano. A friend who had also grown up there remembered her and told me that during the Second World War Aurelia was the only person to go out when bombs were falling, because, she said, she was too ugly to be killed.
Twice a week, Aurelia spent a few hours changing my linen, doing my washing, sweeping and dusting and polishing, but she often mentioned that she was famous for her polenta and would like to fix it for me one day.
She kept my apartment on the top floor of a 19th century building on Via dei Vecchietti fairly spic and span. She chattered while she worked and listening to the narrative of her life, I learned a number of colorful Florentine expressions that were never used in polite company.
Every weekend, Aurelia took the train to a town on the Adriatic coast to visit her uncle, who, she claimed, had a title, was, in fact, a prince. There was nothing about Aurelia that suggested aristocratic connections, but I had heard that many Italian titles were not to be taken very seriously. I knew one pretentious young man named Baroncelli who was able to purchase the title “Barone,” and did so probably because “Barone Baroncelli” had such a distinctive ring. So, I thought, maybe Aurelia’s uncle really was a prince of one kind or another.
“Il mio zio, il principe,” as she referred to him, was elderly and not in good health and Aurelia was, she told me, the only one in the family who was kind to him. He had, she said, two very mean sisters who lived nearby, but who rarely came to see him.
Once after a weekend with her uncle, Aurelia told me that she had something very important to tell me, but that it was an enormous secret and I could not even hint of it to anyone. “I must find a very discreet lawyer,” she said, “un avvocato molto discreto.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” she said in a whisper, “My uncle has decided to adopt me!” “Aurelia! That means you will become a principessa!” She smiled.
There was, she confided, one condition that she had to agree to before her uncle adopted her, and it had to do with his mean sisters. “After I inherit,” she said,” I must hire a long black car with a uniformed chauffer and, wearing a new pair of white gloves, go to visit his sisters. During the visit I must not take off my gloves nor sit down.” She obviously was relishing the prospect of putting the mean sisters in their place.
After she had been working for me for some time, Aurelia began to act strangely. Instead of spending several hours cleaning my apartment, she would stay the entire day. Since I paid her by the visit and not the hour, I didn’t really care, but it was disconcerting to have her there from 9 in the morning until early evening, finding things to do that did not really need to be done. I called the friend I shared her with and Flo reported the same bizarre behavior. “I can’t get rid of her!” she said. Eventually, Flo sent her Italian boyfriend, Aldo, to ask questions in the quartiere where Aurelia lived. It did not take him long to solve the mystery. To earn a little extra cash, Aurelia was renting out her room by the hour to the neighborhood whores and could not return home until their business was done.
Finally, one day when a friend from Livorno was coming to lunch, I told Aurelia that she could make her famous polenta for us. About half an hour before the guest was to arrive, I left Aurelia setting the table while her pot of polenta bubbled away in the kitchen. I went out to buy wine and bread for the meal, and when I returned my guest was at the front door. We entered the apartment together and went into the dining room. As we approached the table, I noticed, sitting next to my plate, Aurelia’s upper and lower dentures, which, I assume, she had taken out for a rest and forgotten. “Aurelia,” I called to her, “it‘s such a nice day, I think we’ll eat on the terrace instead.” A change of venue was definitely called for if we were to regain our suddenly lost appetites. I had a hard time getting out of my mind the image of Aurelia’s false teeth next to my plate even as we ate her excellent polenta on the terrace with a beautiful view over Florence. I don’t know if she ever became a princess, but I never asked her to prepare lunch again.
Here is my favorite way to prepare polenta, the delicious Italian cousin of grits:
1 lb raw extra large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
2 links of good quality smoked sausage, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil + one tablespoon
1 clove of garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup milk
½ cup wine
1 cup chopped parsley
For the polenta:
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup of polenta or coarsely ground corn meal
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup cream cheese
While the water is coming to a boil in a large saucepan, brown sausage and garlic slices in the olive oil in a large skillet, being careful not to burn the garlic. When sausage and garlic are well browned, remove sausage to a plate and discard garlic. Toss shrimp in skillet in the now flavored oil until they are pink and beginning to curl. Remove to plate with sausage.
When the water has come to a boil, add salt and slowly whisk in the polenta or corn meal. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir in butter. Stir occasionally while it cooks. It should be ready in about 30 minutes.
While the polenta is cooking, add the extra tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet. Slowly stir in flour over a medium heat until it begins to lightly brown. Stir in wine and then the milk while stirring vigorously until the sauce is smooth and thick.
When the polenta is tender, stir in the cream cheese over low heat.
Add the sausage and shrimp to the sauce in the skillet and gently reheat.
Sprinkle the parsley over the mixture, and serve immediately over mounds of polenta.