Great was my excitement to find the old gentleman on my television, and I read that his morning show would be sponsored by the Quaker Oats Company. There, in his warm regard and his flat black hat, my favorite cereal supplier was back from playing with his friends and ready to go to work. I smiled to myself as I recalled the time he missed the greatest opportunity of his career to meet me and become famous.
Perhaps I don't need to explain that in Boston a heritage grocery store lasted well beyond its time as S.S. Pierce. Proper Bostonians were chummy about this and spoke of the store as "Mr. Pierce's Place." As with the Big and Little Endians, Boston people were divided as to say "Pierce" as in "earrings" or "Perce" as in pocketbook. Either was all right, but you took your choice. And one evening happenstance placed me at dinner with a gentleman introduced as Mr. Charles Perce. I asked if he was associated with the food store. He said he was.
I said, "Then I want you to tell me: Is it 'pierce' or 'perce'?"
Mr. Pierce said, "Now I will tell you. If you come in and buy groceries, you may call me Charlie."
During dinner I also asked Charlie where I could find some honest, old-fashioned, all-night oatmeal. The kind my grandfather ate every morning from a soup plate, and not the effete rolled oats from the Quaker people. Charlie said, "I'll mail you a peck first thing in the morning; we carry it all the time." Over the years, Charlie and I have lost touch, but I find the gourmet counters in some stores still offer at an advanced price the old-time "oat meal" that used to be the cheap one and therefore the national diet of Scotland. My grandfather always took his with attendant cups of molasses and cream. He would also drop some butter on it before he began to eat. It was prelude to the meat and potatoes, making in all a nourishing meal that would last well along toward noon.
The cream for his porridge had just been separated after the morning milking, and the molasses was from Barbados in an oaken hoksit, or hogshed. Dip the porridge with a soupspoon, enrich it with the molasses, then flavor it to taste with some cream. A verse from "Annie Laurie" will do ye no harm.
Now I doubt if any of you ever met anybody who was born in Passadumkeag, Maine, so I will introduce you to Walter F. Whittier, who was a native of that bustling community far up on the Penobscot River, home to 264 people. (Revised, 1940, to 363.)
Walter, in a new suit of clothes and versed in Abnaki Indian, came downstate in 1923 to study Latin at Bowdoin College, which led to his becoming very smart and the president of a big food-store chain that, unlike many others, persists. Walter had only two friends. They were I, and a chap named Stuart who was president of the Quaker Oats Company somewhere out in Ohio or St. Louis named, I think, Chicago or such. In a business chat one day, Walter said to Mr. Quaker, "You'd sell a lot more Quaker Oats if people knew how to eat the stuff. You need molasses; molasses is what makes oatmeal palatable." This was a stern view, but as Walter's firm bought a great deal of cereal each year, Mr. Stuart feigned intense interest and said, "Prithee, tell me more."
Thus pleaded with, Walter loosened his tie, and in Passadumkeag prose elucidated to the president of the Quaker Oats Company the basic truth about oatmeal. He explained, with gestures, about oatmeal vs. rolled oats, and how to keep the former at a smooth mull all night on the back of a Glenwood range, in a double boiler; and how to keep it gentle and without lumps. He dwelt on the lost art of fostering fresh cream and procuring good Barbados molasses. Mr. Stuart was entranced and said so, and, overcome completely with a sudden emotion, they clasped hands and sang "Annie Laurie," twice.
Walter revealed that it was still possible to get honest W-I (West Indies) molasses from the Crosby Molasses Company in St. John, New Brunswick, which still does a flourishing business because New Brunswick Canadians have not yet been told about the rectified, scarafied, and lulciticated substitutes lately introduced by scalawags. Walter made a bold proposal. He would bring the molasses, they'd have cream flown in from Amish Pennsylvania, the Quaker Oats Company would lend its corporate nutritional testing kitchens, and I would come to prepare breakfast.
All this would be attended by the Quaker Oats promotional staff, and we would launch a worldwide advertising program to teach the masses to eat molasses with their morning favorite. Walter come back to Maine to tell me about this, and I said I would be delighted to take part any time after I took care of my annual seasonable philanthropies.
I never heard anything further, except that Walter kept telling me plans were afoot, but he thought Mr. Stuart was dragging his feet on the grounds that he doubted if anybody would believe us. This, I know, has happened before.
The session in the Quaker Oats kitchens in Chicago never came to pass. It never came to pass, and the world has never known. What a joy we might have brought! (Wringing of hands in sorrow.) But let us not despair! The Quaker gentleman is still around, and brings cheerful messages every morning. If I don't hear from him by Saint Andrew's Day, I'll nudge him.