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Before the days of beer
Porridge is as ancient as it is
humble. While some at Whistler may find this unbelievable, Reay Tannahill in
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
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
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.