Morning gruel

Photo by Jonathan Silverman

Whether rushed or relaxed, greeted by a gorgeous sunrise or a wicked cold wind, have a full slate of appointments or a day of leisure, we begin our day with some form of breakfast. That is, we put “things” together that agree with our palette, time constraints and what just happens to be around to break our evening fast and start our day.

My morning ritual includes cereal. Whether I am planning to teach, meet a colleague or friend, stack wood or take on an art project, I scout what is available on the shelves, in the fridge, or resting in the fruit bowl. As a chef might first take out a fresh garlic and red onion to begin a stir fry, I reach for a jar of oats. For me, this is just the beginning, a prelude to creative gruel cookery.

Does my individual approach to breakfast reflect who I am and how I approach the mysteries of life? Is my morning ritual one that conveys a creative process or one that falls under a neurotic discipline? Am I a cog on the eternal life of grain? Do others embrace cereal as a launching pad for a day’s journey?

My curiosities (as well as a challenge by The Charlotte News publisher to write something) led me to dig a bit deeper into my cereal bowl with the risk of unveiling my idiosyncrasies and curiosities about the culture of my morning mix. Perhaps my morning cereal habits are influenced by my dad who was a Wheaties guy for years who then, as many do, and with a bit of reluctance and relief, moved on to bran.

Unlike my dad, I engage in a research that is based on previous concoctions ranging from quite tasty to vile. Each day’s cereal is different, though the interplay of improvisation with intent is consistent. That is, I want a bit of control, yet I treasure the element of surprise. I ponder options such as granola, Weetabix, brown rice, dates, almonds, coconut and yogurt to join my ménage. I might add ginger, turmeric or cinnamon for a spicy pick-me-up. If I sense the blend is bland (unsweetened) I dab in honey or maple syrup. (OK, maybe a bit more that a dab!) My allergies keep me away from hazelnuts and Brazil nuts.

With the exception of hot humid summer days I like my cereal warm. This requires a “delicate” touch to not scald any added milk. If I choose oat grits I need to be sure they are well-cooked for that nutty texture and taste. Since I might serendipitously mix steel-cut oats, with oat and honey granola sprinkled with 7-grain seeds, dates and chopped apple, I wonder what I can call what I am eating. Cereal? Porridge? Oatmeal? Gruel?

At a breakfast with Charlotte friends recently I sheepishly shared that I was writing an article about porridge. To my surprise, I was swarmed with past and present morning cereal rituals and questions (as if I were a porridge scholar or conducting a research for Quaker Oats). “When I was living in West Africa I had a bowl of millet cereal every morning.” “When I was a kid I had Cream of Wheat every morning” “Funny you should mention that because I have a combination of Cream of Wheat and Wheatena every day!” “What is the difference between oatmeal and porridge?” “And why do people refer to cereal as gruel?” Wow! I unveiled a gold mine of curiosity, memories and more daily rituals.

Not surprisingly, oatmeal consists of oats whereas porridge refers to different crushed grains such as wheat, rice or barley, as well as oats. Cooking oats and other grains has been around a long time. As Alistair Moffat, who has studied the development of early humans through his research on DNA markers, notes, “The great invention, the greatest revolution in our history was the invention of farming. Farming changed the world because of the invention of porridge.” The implication is that after shifting from migrating and hunting/gathering to farming and homesteading our ancestors cultivated grains as a source for food and drink. Whether oats, quinoa, polenta, barley, millet or congee (rice), porridge-like cereal has been a staple in diverse cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. The term “gruel” is used colloquially for a thin porridge, typically associated with peasants and consistent with its Latin origin that conveys meal of grains.

In addition to the ease in growing, porridge is not difficult to digest and offers vital nutrients. Whole grains typically will provide some protein and fiber as well as zinc, iron, vitamin B and magnesium. Porridge is known to strengthen the immune system and maintain the “viscosity” of the digestive system. Perhaps viscosity is a more digestible way to indicate the importance of regularity.

Though many of us in Vermont embrace oats for our daily porridge, oats lag way behind corn, rice, wheat and barley production worldwide. Nonetheless, we who favor morning oats have options when perusing the shelves at our local market—from Quaker Oats, the cereal of choice when I was a kid, to Scottish or Irish steel-cut oat groats. OK, so what are groats and why steel-cut? Groats is a Scottish term for uncut, unbroken oat grains. The “steel” blade cuts them into itty bitty pieces that resemble short-grain rice. These gritty bits take a wee longer to cook and often require a night’s soaking (indeed, an act of devotion). The texture of steel cut proves to be nuttier.

I was hoping for some Celtic vs. Gaelic folklore to distinguish Scottish oats from Irish oats, but alas it may just be bragging rights for where the oats are grown and an appeal to one’s heritage (or what might sound healthier or more exotic). And, not to be undone, Vermont is one of the states that offers state-certified organic-raised oats. For those wondering, Russia produces the world’s largest amount of oats, Canada is second, and the U.S. is sixth.

As noted, I mix granola with my porridge. Granola has an interesting history. Muesli, perhaps the root of granola, was invented by the Swiss physician Max Birascher-Benner and made by toasting various grains, especially oats, and adding fruits and nuts. The inventor of the term granola as a brand was a Christian abolitionist living in the time of the Civil War by the name of James Caleb Jackson. Jackson was a health reformer, directed a sanitarium and named his cereal from the Latin word for grain, granum (changing it to granula). He believed that granula would instill good Christian values, help you prepare for the second coming, and decrease “carnal desire.”

In the late 1800s, physician and Seventh Day Adventist John Henry Kellogg changed the name from granula to granola (to prevent from being sued by Jackson). Hoping to popularize the health qualities of grains, nuts, and fruits, he baked whole grains with the intent of creating a breakfast dish. Like Jackson, Kellogg ran a sanitarium, Battle Creek, and insisted on a healthy regime for his patients, which included a vegetarian diet, hydrotherapy and daily enemas. Granola did not prove to be a commercial success for Kellogg; however, the corn and wheat flakes he and his brother developed proved to be more popular.

Unlike Kellogg or Jackson I have no interest in popularizing my brand (nor will I establish a sanitarium in Charlotte). I am just one of millions throughout the world who relies on morning grains.

Of course, we all can recall Oliver’s plea for a second bowl of gruel:
Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: “Please, sir, I want some more.” (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1838).

As History of Food author, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, notes, porridge is enjoyed by those who live in castles as well as cottages. My home surely is more like a cottage, and whether what I eat is called cereal, porridge, oatmeal, gruel or mush, like Oliver, I would like more……

Jonathan Silverman is a 28-year Charlotte resident, a Saint Michael’s College professor emeritus, the current chair of the Charlotte Library Board of Trustees and a porridge enthusiast.