Sing Praise for Steaming Oatmeal!

IT seems improbable, but I read that Mrs. Denise Toulon, who is technology director of the New York City school nutrition service, which serves some 750,000 lunches every day, starts her own day at home with a bowl of oatmeal. It doesn't say if this is for breakfast or before breakfast, but my grandfather, from whom I inherited my tendency, always took his before breakfast as something to do while his director of nutrition was preparing his ham and eggs, his potatoes and turnips, his Hebrides cakes, and the supportive sweeties that would ``stay'' with him until 10 o'clock when everybody lunched. (Dinner came at noon.)

Grandfather had already done the barn chores and had separated the milk - he liked fresh cream on his porridge. And molasses. Grandfather, like Mrs. Toulon, had oatmeal every day. Except, perhaps, that Mrs. Toulon actually gets rolled oats, which my grandfather knew nothing about.

Grandfather grew his own oats, and after threshing, the grain was stored in a zinc-lined oat bin in the barn, from which it was drawn as wanted for the family and the animals. He kept a hammermill for the more refined tastes, which perhaps explains the difference between oatmeal and rolled oats. Too many oats made the horses frisky, and they were said to ``feel their oats.'' Too many oats also made the hens lay eggs with pale yolks and caused the cows to offer pale cream. Besides a place to store cats, the oat bin was important in curing meat in those days of home production and no refrigeration above the damp cellar floor.

Hams, shoulders, and bacon were made ready for smoking by so many days in a sugar-salt brine, after which the meat was sewn into cheesecloth and buried in the oat bin. The dry oat grains would ``draw'' the excess moisture from the meat, leaving it just right to take the light smoking that followed. Grandfather had devised his own smokehouse, which was just a hogshead with racks and a place below for the corncobs and ground juniper (and a touch of alderwood) that he kindled in a bread pan. There was never a blaze to this - just smoke.

Somebody should speak to Mrs. Toulon about the MacAskill. My grandfather knew all about him and told me many yarns of the famous giant, who lived on Cape Breton Island and never ate anything but oatmeal porridge. At 14 years of age, he was nine feet tall. (Mrs. Toulon is described as a ``compact'' woman.) At 15, the MacAskill was wearing a size-24 shoe. My grandfather said they used to yoke the MacAskill with an old steer and plow. But some men from the kirk came and made them stop that, saying the strain was too much for the ox. If you would like to know more about the MacAskill, I suggest you make a visit in season to beautiful Cape Breton. There is an institution of higher learning there called Gaelic College, and it has a museum devoted largely to the Giant MacAskill and his prodigious feet and feats.

Gaelic College also teaches the Gaelic language. Back in the war days, Canada wouldn't take recruits in the military unless they could handle either French or English. All the bonnie, braw, bright Cape Breton laddies were sent home forthwith - they didn't know either. A man told me there is more Gaelic used on Cape Breton Island today than in all the Scottish Highlands. A great many people on Cape Breton remind me of my grandfather.

I'm willing to assume that a talented lady who can run the New York City school-lunch program will be aware of the purpose of a bain-marie. This is by no means essential to the cooking of modern high-speed rolled oats, but for real oatmeal (which I'm sure Mme. Toulon can locate through her professional connections), a double boiler is a must.

Grandfather, himself, began the process after the second supper, putting water in the lower pot just to the point where it wouldn't bubble out, and then putting water in the upper vessel to oblige the oatmeal. He liked a dribble of salt, and to amuse us childers would sometimes toss in a small handful of plums - raisins to you! Until bedtime this would cook on a front cover of the stove, but at bedtime was pushed to the back where it would mull but never scorch. In winter, a fire was kept all night, but in summer the stove would cool down. That's why winter porridge was always better. But in winter it took longer to pour the molasses. Things even out. I like the sound of Mrs. Toulon - a food master and nourishing individualist. I hope she lives a thousand years and grows to enormous size!

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