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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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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.

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