What Did We Eat Before Oat Bran?

YEARS ago our leading wholesale grocer in Maine was talking to the president of the Quaker Oats Company, and Walter said he believed Maine was the only state in the union that still had a true Barbados molasses on the grocery shelves - his company imported it from New Brunswick, where the Crosby people still brought it by vessel from the Windwards. Strangely, the Quaker Oats man showed little interest in this nugget of knowledge, and Walter was aghast to realize that he didn't associate rich, Barbados molasses with his product. Walter said, ``Molasses is the only thing that ever made oatmeal palatable!'' As consequence of this colloquy it was planned to have a gathering in the Quaker Oats kitchens in Chicago, where some down-Maine mothers would instruct the oatmeal people in the virtues of molasses. I was supposed to attend as a reliable witness and as a long-time friend of Walter Whittier, president of Hannaford Brothers and the pride of Passadumkeag. Then I heard no more about it.

Possibly it's just as well, because the novelty of the oat bran mystique has beguiled the gullible national notion until we get 10 seconds of President Bush, two minutes of oat bran, and no molasses. I have been thinking about oats.

In my 4-H Club days, bran came from wheat. We went to the feed store to get bran, shorts, and middlings for our barnyard beasts and birds, all from wheat. Oats came whole, for horses. Corn came whole, cracked, and ground, and from the bin that gave us corn meal for the pigs we dipped for the dog's bannock and for our household johnnycake.

We called corn bread johnnycake because it was corn yellow - the French word for yellow is jaune and Jacques Cartier was the first to find the Micmacs eating jauneg^ateau - which is a johnnycake in Qu'ebec. Now that we have everybody in white-cornmeal Rhode Island in a tizzy, I can add that johnnycake is also known as yellowjack, because jack is down-Maine for batter - as in flapjack.

Oats, home grown, were threshed and stored in tin-lined, rat-proof bins, and were dandy for drying wet boots. A pair of waterproof rubber high-cut boots that gets wet inside can stand in the sun for weeks and still be clammy. But heat a pan of oat grains in the oven, pour the hot oats in the boots, and come morning all is dry. Doesn't hurt the oats and you can feed them to the hens. But not too many at once. There is no yellow in oats and if a hen gets too many she'll begin to pale out. Then the yellow fades from her beak and legs, and soon from the yolks in her eggs. A 10-egg cake made from oat-eggs comes out wan.

Same with a cow. If a cow gets too many oats her milk soon loses its natural cream color, and her butter will look like leaf lard. The quality and flavor are all right, but the color lacks appeal. The big problem with an oat-fed cow is that she begins to think she's a horse. Horses like oats, and if you give too many to some old nag that hasn't been worked lately he'll ``feel his oats'' and kick up his 24-year-old heels and do a mile in half past two.

A cow similarly deluded always looks somewhat silly as she darts down the driveway headed for the Topsham Fair race track. My neighbor, Walt Spear, one year had a bumper crop of oats and fed them to his family cow exclusively. She'd whinny and go and Walter had to run her down before milking. The Spear family got accustomed to white butter, but one day the cow cavorted to tip over eight beehives.

Rory MacIver, who came to thresh our oats with his crew of 11 sons, used to compliment my grandmother for the feeds she put on. Rory loved my grandmother's Highland oatcakes. Maybe you would:

OATCAKES 3 cups oatmeal or rolled oats 3 cups white flour 2 cups white sugar 1 1/2 cup shortening 1 teaspoon soda 2 teaspoons salt 3/4 cup cold water

Roll mixture in oatmeal (not flour) cookie-thin and cut into three-inch cakes. Bake 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven.

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