PIPING-hot porridge. Steamy mush. Gooey gruel. This is the season for hot cereal. And although moms are still serving the sticky stuff to their kids, cooked grain has recently dressed up its image. People want to ``return to mom and apple pie and warmth,'' says Phil Lempert, food industry observer. ``Oatmeal is the perfect example. There's something very coddling and soothing associated with hot cereal,'' he remarks.
Oatmeal has always had a small but loyal customer base, says Ron Bottrell, spokesperson for the Quaker Oats Company, but ``the last two years has seen a big jump in purchases and consumption of hot cereal, most of it due to the oat bran and cholesterol link.'' (Oat bran as dietary fiber is thought to help reduce cholesterol.) From 1987-1988, oatmeal sales grew 20 percent, ``which is a lot, particularly for a product that's been around'' since 1877, says Mr. Bottrell.
Bran-mania aside, hot cereal has been a family favorite for more than a century. Linda Campbell, a mother of two from North Scituate, Rhode Island, grew up on hot cereal and now cooks it regularly for her family. ``It's healthy, and the kids really do like it,'' she says.
``Hot cereal is a seasonal product,'' explains Bottrell. Nearly 70 percent of hot cereal sales occur between September and March.
Commercial cereals that grace the grocery shelves range from old to new, long-cooking to instant: the old standards like Quaker Oats Oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, Maypo, Maltex, Cream of Rice, Farina; and the newer ones with flavors - apple and spice, cinnamon-raisin, brown sugar, maple, dried fruit with nuts.
And behold the boxes of instants! What used to go from the pantry to the pot now can go straight to the bowl. Too, Granola, trail mixes, and even Grape Nuts come with try-it-hot recipes on the boxes.
Several small companies make hot cereals that sell in ``health food'' stores. ``We sell a lot of that stuff,'' says Marianne Pierce, food manager with the Whole Food and Grain Depot in Oak Park, Illinois. She says she's seen the market broaden in the past 10 years with more hot cereal products available now than ever before - especially the fast-cooking and versions.
Basically, the quicker a cereal's cooking time, the more it has been pre-treated or processed in milling and cooking.
BUT many consumers forget that hot cereal doesn't have to come in a cardboard box. Nor does it have to taste like that box.
All raw grains can be made into hot cereal. And although cooking time is much longer, most people agree that the fresh, home-cooked grains put ``the instants'' to shame.
If Marion Cunningham, author of ``The Breakfast Book,'' had her way, everyone would try cooking grain fresh from the earth.
Although Ms. Cunningham has nothing against commercial cereals, she objects to the limited choice consumers are given: ``Oatmeal, a little barley, and wheat that has been milled a lot. No one deviates from just a stereotype collection,'' she laments. A lot of people are missing out, being ``led by the nose by marketing.'' What about buckwheat, sorghum, or rye? These can be bought in bulk from health food stores, she says.
Cunningham's piece de resistance is hulled barley. ``It's one of the best cereals I know of,'' she says. The barley takes about 30-45 minutes to cook in boiling salted water. And the leftover cereal makes a wonderful pilaf, she says.
``You can trust people who eat hot cereal [like this],'' the California cook says with a chuckle. ``There's something substantial about them; they're willing to work a little bit.''
What about all the instant hot cereal products? ``It's the worst example in my mind of how we fall for the quick and the easy,'' says Cunningham. People should take the time to cook, she says. Homemade hot cereal ``puts you back in the prairie and reminds you that you belong to a planet, not a condominium.''
Like many others cereal lovers, Cunningham touts steel-cut oats over rolled oats - the kind most Americans eat. ``A Scotsman wouldn't be caught dead eating rolled oats,'' she says.
The Scottish are known for their hot oat cereal. They eat their ``porridge'' by taking a spoonful of the very hot grain and dipping it into a side bowl of cold milk or cream before eating it.
``We make it quite thick,'' says Catherine Brown, a resident of Glasgow, Scotland, and the author of ``Scottish Cookery.'' ``The English make a very runny porridge with a finer oatmeal - like custard,'' she says with disapproval. ``We don't normally put anything more than salt into it,'' says Ms. Brown, although children sometimes like to add honey or syrup or molasses.
Everyone has a personal preference with hot cereal: sweet or salty; lumpy, smooth, or crunchy. Grains can even be mixed for variety, says Cunningham, who likes to combine barley with oats. Last-minute add-ins and toppings can include butter, fruit, nuts, and seeds, as well as sweeteners such as maple syrup or brown sugar.
As far as richness and consistency, ``some people swear by milk or just water,'' says Cunningham. ``I say try cream!''