In Praise Of Perfect Porridge

A hot, steaming bowl of oatmeal on a brisk day sounds homey and old-fashioned. And when you're living in a cold climate half the year, it's a warm way to start the day. But truthfully, oatmeal was a custom I had to grow accustomed to when I moved to Maine. It was a mainstay of northern cuisine years ago, and is still affectionately known among family members as the only food of the day you really need.

My husband's grandmother started the tradition of oatmeal every morning, and his mother followed in her footsteps.

In the 1940s, they cooked all their meals on a big black Atlantic, and on the back burner there was always a pot of oatmeal firming up. It had been cooked earlier in the day or in the evening after supper dishes had been washed and dried. It was left to the side to cool and "set up" for the morning.

Both these Maine cooks put the accent on the second syllable of the word, as in oat-MEAL, which made this modest and simple food sound forthright and determined - and like a full meal. Generations of Maine families have discovered that oatmeal has stick-to-your-ribs staying power if you're out fixing fences for eight hours in the puckerbrush miles from home. It may be humble, but it can tide you over.

Water, rolled oats, and a dash of salt are all that's needed to get a pot going. And a heavy spoon. We transfer the cooked oatmeal to a double boiler so we can reheat it all week long. Watch out, though: It thickens like glue as time goes on. When it gets to that point, we throw it out or use it for baking.

WHEN I was first married, I made the mistake of cooking my oats in a saucepan, and then discovered the next day that I had no way to heat up the thick, sticky gruel without burning it. There were no home microwaves in the early 1970s. I needed to buy a double boiler. Suddenly, I was well on my way to carrying on a family tradition.

Over the years I have learned the secrets of making oatmeal wholesome and hearty.

The best oatmeal has to cool and "set" after being cooked. It must cure for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight, before being served. Oatmeal that is cooked and served the same day risks being runny and loses its chance for heartiness. Early the next morning, the firm porridge is placed in a double boiler to perk away on the stove for 20 minutes or more, steaming like crazy.

The boiling water in the pot creates a vapor and a sound that are warm and comforting on cold days as we scurry around pouring orange juice, making toast, and setting the breakfast table.

There have been many winter mornings so still and harsh that trees looked frozen in place across the landscape. Frost was heavy on the windows. The steam from the oatmeal was the place for everyone to warm up their hands to start the day.

Every once in a while, the top of the pot would jiggle and jump, bringing some life to those early-morning hours. If the pot had been on the stove for any length of time, steam would build inside the kitchen and fog up the windows.

That's the homey part.

The hearty and wholesome part of oatmeal comes when you eat it. I always serve oatmeal with a big, wooden spoon. Grandmother Briggs would have it no other way. Perhaps it's the meeting of natural fibers, or something like that. After 15 years, my children still identify this kitchen tool as "the oatmeal spoon."

Once the bottom of your cereal bowl is covered with hot oatmeal, you must decide whether you're tradition-bound or a free spirit. We provide brown sugar, molasses, raisins, nuts, honey, granola, and bananas. Many of our guests are thankful for that. Purists, however, frown on this practice and take their oatmeal straight, with just a little cream and maybe some fine sugar. The younger generation tends to be more radical about its oatmeal, at least in our family.

Oatmeal isn't for everyone, however.

It took me a few years to get used to eating it regularly. It still looks medieval. Babies will eat it only if it's disguised with applesauce or yogurt. When my sister-in-law finds the whole affair too lumpy or pasty, she takes it off the stove and makes bread out of it. (Anne's oatmeal bread is the best bread in the neighborhood.)

With oatmeal in your life, the breakfast table suddenly becomes a place to express yourself. But it is also the place for shared tradition, for establishing common experience before family members go their separate ways for the day.

Who cares if we're not home for lunch? We have all started our day from one pot of hearty grain. And it should last you all day.

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