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Please porridge hot Please porridge cold

But just give it up if it's nine days old

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By Glenda Bartosh

I was visiting with Pat Muir at Stew and Athana’s annual Christmas bash when it struck me how wonderfully bright and vibrant she is. In all regards — physically, mentally, emotionally — Stew’s mom is a model for aging gracefully, a fact I’m sure Jim Watts will attest to.

Sure I’d had a sip or two of port, and the candlelight was golden and low, but I’m positive neither had anything to do with me asking her, “Pat, what’s your secret?” She looked me square in the eyes, hers bright and twinkling, and laughed. “Porridge!” she declared.

I swore my grandpa, who, except for his final year, remained robust until he died at age 91, virtually lived on porridge, starting each day with cooked oats, except Sundays when he made hotcakes. And our new Minister of State for ActNow BC, Gordon Hogg, includes porridge as part of his new fitness regime.

Tom Barratt is a big porridge eater, buying steel cut oats at Caper’s before it spread beyond its original location in West Van, and teaching me the subtlety of adding currants, not raisins, which are too sweet.

At the mention of porridge, Jan Gavin, who just called from her new home in England, promptly declared it the best fuel for skiing. It’s good for your heart and good for your bowels and lasts all day, she pointed out, before launching into a wonderful tale about Bruce Charters’ dad — “a man the size of a grasshopper” — who’d lived all his life on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

It was the early ’70s and Janine and her then-husband, Tom, were off to do the West Coast Trail and had packed all sorts of specialty backpacking foods one would dutifully pack in those days.

Bruce had put them in touch with his dad, who explained that when he and his friends walked the trail, which they’d done more than once, they never took anything but a pocketful of porridge — dry form, of course — which they would nibble on, followed by a swig of water.

Every time they got hungry, they’d sip a bit more water and the porridge would swell a little more in their bellies, pushing hunger pangs away and propelling them onwards.

 

Before the days of beer

Porridge is as ancient as it is humble. While some at Whistler may find this unbelievable, Reay Tannahill in Food in History discounts one anthropologist’s supposition that the first Neolithic interest in grain was for beer. Sorry, but they didn’t have any containers to make beer in in those ancient times, since pottery had not yet been developed.

No, the primary evidence of the first grain use is eating it which, given the extent to which it would be indigestible, points to either sprouting it or cooking it, after the little prickly bits were removed. Ergo porridge or gruel.

Which brings up one little problem about porridge — what exactly is it? Can we call the dry stuff porridge? Is gruel porridge? Are oats the only grain to rightfully claim the name “porridge”?

What about that very Asian of breakfast dishes, congee? And what the heck was it in that nursery rhyme, pease-porridge hot, pease-porridge cold, pease-porridge in the pot, nine days old?

Let’s start by deconstructing the nursery rhyme. First of all, it is pease porridge, not peas porridge, “pease” simply being the older variant from which “peas” and “pea” are derived. And, yes, it was a porridge, or as some called it then, pudding or pottage (from which the word “porridge” is derived) made by boiling up peas.

As for eating it after nine days without refrigeration, some apparently liked it that way but personally I wouldn’t have touched it with a ten-foot pole.

As for what rightfully earns the title porridge, that most revered of sources, the Oxford Canadian dictionary, allows that it is simply a dish of oats or another cereal boiled in water or milk. Gruel means you added more water, although some would argue, especially if they are Scots, there’s more to it than that — boiling the oats, straining it and then feeding the liquid to whomever will take it, likely an infant or invalid who can’t get away too fast.

And, yes, given that rice is a cereal, congee makes the grade, which my husband will gleefully acknowledge. After discovering congee on an overseas trip, he now happily adds congee-style accoutrements to his usual porridge, namely soy sauce, chopped green onion and a dash of hot sauce. And why not? I’ve taken to boiling up some of Bob’s Red Mill ground brown rice for breakfast, and adding Canadiana accoutrements like yogurt and currants (not raisins) and fresh ground cinnamon. Yummy.

Try corn meal for porridge. Or buckwheat. Or classic Sunny Boy, with all its (organic) rye and flax (sorry, I’m an Albertan, so Sunny Boy rules, not Manitoba’s Red River Cereal.)

Any of these porridges provide you with that steady-Eddy power base that only happens when you eat a lot of good fibre. But oats, as any good Scot will attest, have an edge in the slippery world of porridge, with their superior protein and hearty taste.

Whatever you use, stay away from that expensive, wimpy instant stuff with all the artificial crap. Come on, it doesn’t take that much longer to boil up the real thing, rolled, steel cut or otherwise.

But if you are in a big hurry in the morning, or it’s summer and you don’t like the idea of hot cereal, take a tip from Jan. Soak your oatmeal the night before in apple juice or any liquid you like. After all, that’s what Dr. Bircher-Benner intended his mushy invention, m üe sli, to be: 2 to 3 tablespoons of oatmeal soaked in cold water for 12 hours. Drain it, and mix it with condensed milk, was his original suggestion, adding grated apples or carrots and top it with lemon and honey.

If you buy your porridge cereals in bulk you can mix your own combos. The cooking basics are always the same — bring your water to a boil, add a pinch of salt if you like, add your cereal in a steady rain as you stir, and turn the heat down so you don’t make a mud volcano.

As you experiment you’ll learn how thick you like it, but a ratio of three parts water to one part cereal is usually a good starting point. If it’s too thick, add more liquid, if it’s too thin, let the water boil off — it’s rocket fuel, not rocket science.

Once you get into it, you might start toasting your own coconut or nuts to add, or figuring out your own tasty way — tabasco, anyone? You might even grab a pocketful to munch on your way down the slopes this winter.

 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who is grumpy all day when she doesn’t get her porridge.

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