Real porridge, please, and a slice of family lore
My grandfather John, for whom I was named (John) was not a Scot, but dwelt among transplanted Highlanders on Prince Edward Island, Canada's garden province, directly under the parsimonious influence of Dunvegan itself. He had taken to bride one Catherine MacLeod, and what do you think she was?Skip to next paragraph
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My mother, the bonniest of the bairns of this union, was named Hilda, possibly to remind Grandfather of his Dutch roots, for he was mostly English-and. While Grandfather John was thus not strictly a Scot, and didn't know what the words meant when Grandmother Catherine read "Tam o'Shanter" on Bobby Burns's birthday, he dutifully ate his bowl of oatmeal porridge every morning and became able to say "fine-thank-ye" and "farewell" in Gaelic.
My other grampy was the Yank here in Maine, and he avoided oatmeal with one hand and grits with the other, speaking English and saying, "Ayeh, I guess so." He always ate brown hens' eggs, and never took sugar in his corn bread. Once in a while he liked yellow corn-meal mush, preferring it with plums and fried, but I took my oatmeal tendency from Mother's side. I remain mixed up in other ways, too.
Mother's father admittedly had "the finest fields on thee-yighland," and I came to realize, as Mother took me in the summer to visit her birthplace, that Prince Edward Island is, as Lucy Maud Montgomery told us, the prettiest place in the world. My other Grampy's farm here in Maine had high stone walls around every field, but the only rock on P.E.I. was brought from Canada!
So, barn work done for the morning, and the cream separated, Grampy John would draw up his chair, adjust his napkin, and pull toward him the soup plate of porridge Grammy Catherine put in front of him.
It was customary on the island in those untutored times to serve four meals a day, and three of them included turnips. The turnip would be skipped for the evening "lunch" that came after supper and just before bedtime. There was no electricity, and my mother saw her first light bulb when she came to Boston at 21 to marry my deserving father.
The farm well, supplying barn and house, was the refrigerator, and a leg of lamb would hang down at the water's top to stay cool and age until wanted. Grammy kept milk, cream, and butter on the cool cellar floor. And Grampy John grew fields of oats and had a zinc-lined oat bin in the barn for both the animals and his kitchen. The bin of dry oat kernels was also used to cure hams and bacon. The meat, not yet smoked, was sewn into clean cotton cloth and buried in the oats, which then drew the moisture from the meat until it was dry enough to get the rest of the preserving process.
May I modestly suggest that unless your mother was an authentic "Pea-Eye," you have no idea how good bacon can be? It is true that today, if I'm fortunate, a taste of bacon sends me back and I'm sitting there in the kitchen and I can hear Grampy say, "Ach, look! The lad's eaten all his porridge! Now, Sir John, do ye want one egg or two, and how many bacons?" Porridge, I learned, was but the foundation for the food that followed.
What I've been getting around to is the new-day television advertising of the Quaker Oats people, who seem to have discovered again for the first time that rolled oats are not oatmeal, or vice-versa, and, I hope, that the quick kind is neither.
Years ago, I sat at a banquet table with a Mr. Pierce, and he was introduced to me as the last of the great Boston family that was grocer to the Beacon Hill folks and carried only the finest kinds. In Boston there has been a perennial dispute as to whether this illustrious name should be pronounced "purse" or "peerse." While everybody is positive one way or another, the truth has never been ascertained. And now that the Transcript and the Pierces are no longer in circulation, we'll probably never know.
SO I said to Mr. Pierce, considering him a reliable authority, "Tell me, sir, and let me pass this along to a yearning world to settle the matter, how do you prefer that your name be spoken, 'purse' or 'peerse'?"
We had been speaking of other Boston problems, such as should the Kennedys be permitted to hold Athenaeum library cards, should Harvard pay taxes, and Red Sox batting averages, so I was not surprised he found my query sufficiently out of context that he hesitated.
Then he said, "Yes, I've heard that one before. And I'll put it this way: If you'll come in and buy groceries, you can call me Charley."
So I never did find out, but I did buy oatmeal from S.S. Pierce for many years. I'd send Charley a money order for 89 cents, and Charley would mail me a brown paper bag with a peck of oatmeal that I couldn't seem to find anyplace else without spending vast sums beyond the means of anybody with even one drop of Dunvegan in his frugal veins. We cooked it all night, and we always kept a cream-line cow, and Crosby at St. John, New Brunswick, still offers West Indies molasses.
But since Charley ceased to respond, and the Pops now play with a different drummer, there has been no important oatmeal news until Mr. Quaker called this to my attention. Does he really mean oatmeal? Shall I send 89 cents?