• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Porridge a staple that sticks not just to ribs

A cursory exploration of my library has revealed a startling omission:

there is not one tome devoted to the history of porridge. This is more than mere oversight, it is a national disgrace which, come what may in September, must be rectified as a matter of urgency. For if, indeed, ours can claim to be a nation worthy of independent status its debt to the humble dish must properly be acknowledged. Let me go further. Were it not for porridge, we would not be who were are today, punching above our weight in the global boxing ring.

Confirmation of this came the other day when this newspaper revealed how our porridge-obsessed ancestors were able to best rivals who, because they ate fruits, berries and other tidbits, had to be breast fed for longer. This meant that their womenfolk were unable to procreate at the same rate as ours, who, crucially, spoon-fed their weans.

At this point, I ought perhaps to go into scientific detail and bandy words familiar only to those with PhDs in genetics but I will spare you. Suffice it to say that, as we reproduced like rabbits, we became dominant and edged out folks who were slow off the mark.

The ability to make porridge is at the heart of this mind-blowing discovery. Go as far back as you like and you will find the inhabitants of this heath consuming the stuff by the ton. Like spam in the Monty Python sketch, porridge was ubiquitous and few were the meals in which it didn't feature. Made of boiling water, thickened with oatmeal, and washed down with milk or ale, it gave voracious hunter-gathers the perfect start to their day.

Lunch involved a similar concoction, as did dinner. Then, as now, green vegetables were regarded either as a luxury or a nuisance. Only the well-to-do could afford meat and fish.

Thus, as Alexander Fenton, the doyen of Scottish rural history, once remarked: "The use of oatmeal dishes in some shape or form is an undoubtedly strong element in the 'taste of Scotland' concept. It is embedded in the mentality of the Scots as an identification mark."

That says it all, really. I would not be surprised to learn that Bruce triumphed at Bannockburn because his men had supped on porridge while their English foes dallied over a barbecue. In the centuries thereafter oats continued to sustain the population.

Come the 1700s, Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary defined "oats" as "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people". It was meant as a mischievous slight but it was also true. It's estimated that, even at the end of the 18th century, farm workers in the north-east were given 36 ounces of oatmeal per day.

Meanwhile, in the south-west of the country, a labourer with a family of four got through two stones of oatmeal a week. Oats were cheap, plentiful, filling and nutritious. They were also versatile. If, say, porridge was served for breakfast on the day of a wedding, sugar was sprinkled on top, an abomination that, I have been told, continues in some quarters to this day.

Post the Second World War, however, porridge began to lose its grip. In its stead were served breakfast cereals, many of which were imported from America and manufactured by Kellogg's. To entice children, it offered "prizes" in the boxes, which harassed mothers purchased to placate their whingeing offspring.

But on a cold morning a cairn of rice krispies was no substitute for a bowl of steaming porridge. The best I have ever tasted was made by my landlady in Aberdeen. Her secret was to soak the oatmeal overnight. Water and salt were the only other ingredients. Milk or, worse, cream were for wusses.

George Mackay Brown contended that porridge fell from grace because we were fed up being told it was good for us. Also, it involved a pot that required cleaning. Then there was "the probability of lumps" which few could abide. But none of these problems is insurmountable, as Mackay Brown latterly discovered to his delight. All you need is a wooden spoon, a non-stick pan and oats that have had any lumps bashed mercilessly out of them in the manufacturing process. And there you have it, the original convenience food.

Contextual targeting label: 
Food and drink

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

244525