Sandwiched between the chapter on doughnuts and the drinks part of the 1898 New Galt Cook Book is a section called Oatmeal. So far I’ve made the Milk Porridge recipe but tonight I’m trying the Oatmeal Gruel using Miss Wardlaw‘s recipe. I wasn’t surprised to find oatmeal in a cook book from Galt but I am baffled by the number of recipes for gruel rather than oatmeal porridge.
I knew I was going out tonight to speak to a women’s group much like the one that created this cook book. I was feeling a bit under the weather today and so a simple, and probably bland, recipe appealed to me. I also knew I had time to soak the oatmeal before I left the house and could prepare the gruel when I returned home. Since I expect this to be awful I decided to make just half the recipe. I put 1 cup (1/2 pint) of my coarse Scottish style oatmeal in a bowl with 2 cups (1/2 quart) of water. I left it on the counter to soak while I was away. I returned home after speaking to a wonderful group of women about this cook book. The oatmeal had been soaking for about four hours so it was ready to strain. My strainer has been taking a beating lately and so I decided to try an alternative. I simply picked up the oatmeal in my hand and squeezed out the liquid. I kept doing that until I’d removed all the oatmeal. It was at this point I wondered if there was anything I could do with this “used” oatmeal since it is the liquid I wanted. I set it aside and did a final straining through my fingers as I poured the liquid into a saucepan. I suspect my method of straining is what people did who couldn’t afford a kitchen full of equipment. Besides … it worked!
I set the saucepan on medium heat and brought it to the boil. At this point I tasted the liquid, and although it was watery, it tasted simply of oatmeal. It wasn’t too bad. I thought that perhaps it should be a bit thicker so I let it boil for a few minutes and it did thicken somewhat. I started to add the nutmeg, sugar and salt. This has to be by taste. I didn’t put very much nutmeg or salt in and then added about a teaspoon of sugar. I tasted a tiny bit and seemed okay so I proceeded to the next step. I put 1 tablespoon of cream in a glass and then poured in the gruel. I stirred and steeled myself to taste Oatmeal Gruel for the first time.
What do you think of when you hear the word gruel? I suspect it is not a positive image. I think of Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Bronte’s Jane Eyre both of them orphans living in terrible situations. However, based on other recipes in this section of the cook book, gruels are for sick people, particularly those with digestive complaints. This probably would help someone who can’t manage solid food for whatever reason.
It could be drunk, spoon fed or even put in an invalid feeder sometimes called a pap cup or boat. They were a bit like a child’s sippy cup since they were partially covered and had a spout for drinking. Some look a bit like a gravy boat. They could be used for liquid or semi liquid food. The patient sips from the spout or the person nursing could just slowly pour the liquid into a patient’s mouth as long as they were capable of swallowing it. They were also a way to introduce food or “pap” to a baby. I visited the Museum of Health Care in Kingston Ontario this winter and they have all sorts of interesting artifacts and exhibits. Check it out here.
I guess if I needed digestible food then Miss Wardlaw’s Oatmeal Gruel would be okay but I missed the texture of oatmeal. I think I prefer the gruel without sugar, salt, or nutmeg. The nutmeg is an interesting idea for oatmeal. I’m accustomed to cinnamon with oatmeal so I might try using nutmeg the next time I make porridge. Sipping gruel or even using a spoon is a bit like trying some of the meal replacement drinks and protein shakes. There’s just something missing. I continued to sip as it cooled and it was still palatable if not exciting.
For all my discussion of the palatability of Oatmeal Gruel it is important to realize how important these types of recipes were for so many women in 1898. Their loved ones could die from diseases that are preventable or treatable in 2014. Just like today they were desperate to try to keep their loved ones alive even when it seemed there was no hope. Getting some nourishment into the sick or injured person could mean they would live. Miss Wardlaw was a nurse and would have lots of experience with this sort of feeding. Three weeks ago I made her recipe for another easy to eat food called panada. Margaret “Maggie” Wardlaw was born in 1862 to Scottish born parents. She grew up in Galt Ontario and it looks like she was the only girl in the family. The eldest of her three brothers became a doctor. Eventually after working as a nurse, she ends up living with this brother and perhaps acting as his nurse in his practice. At some point she ends up in Newmarket and that’s where she dies at the age of 70.
Soak one pint of oatmeal in one quart of water for some hours, then strain and boil. Flavor with nutmeg, sugar and salt. Have two tablespoons of cream in a tumbler. Pour in the gruel, stir and serve.