Photo by @rgs/FlickrCC
Although polenta is woven firmly into the cooking and culture of much of Europe, it's relatively modern, since corn didn't come to Europe till after Columbus, at the very end of the 15th century. However, porridges made from dried and ground grains existed long before that. While it was generally rejected in well-to-do parts of the continent, polenta was quickly put to use as an economical way to feed the poor. In hard-scrabble, scrounging economies--Tuscany, the mountains of Northern Italy and Greece and remote spots like Romania, corn polenta became THE major food for most people.
While it is still associated in some people's minds with poverty, it's also connected to the communities that cook it in the same way that pasta, rice, fish and paella are elsewhere. They're part of everyday eating, part of the seasonal swings of celebration, tied into religious feasting and fasting rituals.
On a more modern, socio-economic, political level, polenta demonstrates what great food can still be about. In his excellent Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan points out that "There are some 45,000 products on supermarket shelves and more than a quarter of them now contain corn." Of those, I'm sure polenta variants are less than a tenth of one percent. What he's talking about is the corn syrup in soda, the corn that's fed to the cows that we buy in the butcher section, the corn in the candy bars at the checkout counter.