Going Against the Grains

When I was a kid – many moons ago – my mother made breakfast almost every morning; a service I full-on took for granted. She made eggs or pancakes a lot, but on days she ran late (or just didn’t feel like it) she’d put out big boxes of brightly colored breakfast cereal. Lord how my brothers and I heaped our bowls with those chemical-laden nuggets. Lucky Charms. Cap’n Crunch. Frosted Flakes. Sure beat the horrid porridges my mother also chose to make. So, forgive my double-take when I sat down to a delicious helping of steel-cut oats the other day, deliberately passing up a beckoning box of Golden Grahams.

bo-r-r-r-r-ing…

Like tomatoes, avocados, and yogurt, I have zero fond memories of hot cereal in my childhood.  I recall coming downstairs for breakfast, and before even reaching the kitchen I’d smell the distinct nastiness of cooked grains.  Quaker Oats.  Cream of Rice.  Cream of Wheat.  Wheatena (the worst of them all).  My mother had more choices for hot cereal than she had sons (and she had a lot of sons).  It’s like she wanted us to vote for “blandest breakfast”.  Mercifully, she allowed small amounts of brown sugar and/or raisins to sweeten things up.  And milk.  Lots and lots of milk.

I should’ve figured this out decades ago.  Hot cereal’s a whole lot better with fresh fruit (raisins are a poor excuse for fruit).  Strawberries, blueberries, apples – they all turn “mush” into an appealing “meal”.  And the learning curve continues.  Rolled oats are better than instant oats.  Steel-cut oats are way better than instant oats.  And lest you’ve forgotten: anything is better than Wheatena (even tomatoes and avocados).

Tell me this: when was the last time you used “porridge” in a sentence (Brits aside)?  What an utterly dated word.  The last time – the only time I uttered “porridge” was reading “Goldilocks and The Three Bears” or jigging to “Peas Porridge Hot” (“…peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old…”).  My nursery-rhyme days.  Porridge doesn’t have a modern ring to it (did it ever?) and yet that’s exactly what we’re talking about today by definition: hot breakfast cereal made by boiling grains in water (or milk).  Wikipedia counted ’em – all grain types included – and came up with seventy-five distinctly different porridges.  Doesn’t matter.  If I’m a kid I still opt for Froot Loops.

You need porridge trivia for your next socially-distant gathering and I’m happy to oblige.  Consider the following:

  • Whole-grain oats date back to 7,000 BC, which sounds like dinosaur times to me (even though it isn’t).  The Chinese and the Greeks made claim to the first versions of porridge back then.
  • Lisa Williams and “The Golden Spurtle”
    If you’re supremely proud of your cooking, there’s a World Porridge-Making Championship in Scotland every October.  The list of winners looks suspiciously Scottish (i.e. “Duncan Hilditch”, “Ian Cruickshank”, “Addy Daggert”) but last year’s champ was England’s Lisa Williams.  She earned “The Golden Spurtle“, which begs a most excellent trivia question: What do you call a stick for stirring porridge?
  • In 1755 it was documented oats were horse food in England but people food in Scotland.  Not exactly a boost to Scottish pride (although to be fair the people’s version was cleaned, toasted, hulled, and cooked).
  • In Portland, OR you used to be able to buy hot cereal from an oatmeal-only food cart.  “Bloop” – with made-to-order mush like “Peanut Butter Banana Dreams” and “Good For You Goodness” – shuttered its wheels in 2011 after a single year in business.  I get it: oatmeal’s no passing fad but it’s also no passing food truck.
  • Your standard can of oats (18 oz.) contains over 26,000 grains.  Don’t count; just trust.
  • The oat capital of America is (drum roll…) Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of most-popular-brand Quaker Oats.  Small town, big factory.
  • Once upon a time, Quaker Oats included coupons in its oatmeal boxes redeemable for legal deeds to property in Milford, CT.  Granted, the lots were only 10’x10′ but you could still be a landowner with a modest purchase of oatmeal.  The whole scheme became a property tax collector’s nightmare and the lots were eventually condemned.

Speaking of the Quaker Oats Company, in the 1970’s they came out with flavored instant versions of their hot cereals.  “Apples & Cinnamon” and “Maple & Brown Sugar” come to mind (“Ready in Just 90 Seconds!”).  God answered my prayers to distance myself from Wheatena.  Also deserving kudos, Quaker Oats used to own Fisher-Price Toys.  Can’t you just picture the marketing division, trying to develop an “oatmeal plush” doll?

I’m devoted to my steel-cut oats these days but I’m not gonna pretend I’m not tempted by alternatives.  Cheerios (especially the “Honey-Nut” variety) is the ultimate oat cereal.  Life (especially the “Cinnamon” variety) is another delicious Quaker Oats product.  And I’ll never get my childhood love for Lucky Charms out of my DNA.  They’ll always be a little more “magically delicious” than porridge.

Some content sourced from fabFood, One Green Planet, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

9 thoughts on “Going Against the Grains

  1. As one of the guys who was sitting around the breakfast table from you (I was the one on the end, for some reason — why was that?!?) this was an excellent post. You focused on the word “porridge,” but reading this it seemed to me that you should have focused on the word “mush” instead. Why the heck did Mom call it “mush”? I never thought about that before… Does anyone else call it “mush”?

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  2. Right you are; our upbringing with hot cereal was all about “mush” and nothing about “porridge”. I should’ve made “mush” my word instead. No idea where that term came from but I’ll ask Dad in case he remembers. For the record, neither word makes it any more appealing to me (at least child-me) 🙂

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  3. Porridge reminds me of the gruel in Oliver Twist, the movie, although I don’t recall any kid ever saying he wanted more? My mother grew up on porridge in the Depression – my grandmother would make a big vat of it every morning because it was cheap and filling – so she spared us that in our childhood. I still occasionally like those Quaker Oats single serving instant packets as a bedtime snack in the winter, with some raisins and brown sugar, but I switched from the flavoured ones (maple and brown sugar) as they are higher in sugar, and now have just the regular oatmeal. I’ve never tried the steel cut oats though…..so that’s an opportunity for culinary exploration. It’s supposed to be good for lowering cholesterol too. My brother ate Lucky Charms – disgusting stuff.

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  4. Ah, great memory there Joni (“Oliver”). I can picture the giant vat of “gruel” and “Bumble” standing behind it. Oliver approaching in bare feet daring to ask for “more”. Had a crush on “Nancy”. Your comment about Lucky Charms brought a laugh but I can’t deny it; there’s little good in them other than a connection to my childhood.

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  5. Yes! Love those cereals! Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, and Frosted Flakes were DELICIOUS! They’ve ruined them now… Less sugar coating.. trying to make them “healthy”. Ugh!! But, don’t forget one of my favorites..QUISP!! Tasted just like Capt Crunch, but shaped like little flying saucers.YUM!

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    1. Apple Jacks! Forgot about that one. We did have Quisp (and Quake?) on the table occasionally; you’re right – Cap’n Crunch taste with different shapes.

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  6. Loved this. My mother was not much of a cook, so the hot cereal was not so bad. Because my sister and I had access to the sugar bowl and we used it. Cocoa Wheats was occasionally purchased when my kids were younger. I could wolf down some Cocoa Wheats right now.

    I had rolled oats for breakfast today – some real maple syrup makes a great sweetener to go along with the milk. Steel cut oats – Mrs JP bought some once, but I recall something about having to start preparing them the night before. That is just not happening at my house.

    I was once at a store and found that they sold bags of the hard, dried colorful marshmallows like those found in Lucky Charms cereal. My eldest son pronounced them magically delicious. Personally, I was (and remain) a Cocoa Krispies guy. A box was good for about two mornings. Mrs. JP still has a weakness for Capn’ Crunch. But the Capn does violence to the roof of my mouth every time I let him in.

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  7. Cocoa Krispies – oh my – forgot about them. One of those cereals where you wanted to drink the leftover milk after you finished the cereal. I wonder if they go by a different name now (Cocoa Wheats?) I’ve noticed they’ve changed the wording breakfast cereals with “sugar” in the name. Thus, “Sugar Smacks” is now “Honey Smacks”, and “Sugar Pops” is now “Corn Pops”. Don’t think anything’s different inside the box – ha.

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