Splendor in the Pot

The indulgence of oatmeal


| January / February 2003


Breakfast cereal is terrible stuff. We eat it because for some strange reason we think it’s good for us, because it’s cheap and goes down easily, and, mostly, because it’s what everybody else eats for breakfast. Not me, no more. Apart from a brief flirtation in the ’60s, I haven’t touched a bowl of it for almost 20 years.

I mean, of course, the cold stuff. I love hot cereal: Wheatena, Maltex, Hot Ralston––they have aroma, taste, a sense of substance, the presence of the actual grain they come from. But while I’ll gladly eat most any of them, the standby on my own larder shelf is a metal canister of McCann’s Irish oatmeal. Pop it open and you’ll find something the hand can get hold of—real chunks and bits of grain, not the processed silt that pours from all those other boxes.

For a spell of years I worked as a Wall Street mailboy on a shift that started at 7 a.m. I’ve never been a willing early riser, even less so in winter, when the radiators in my Lower East Side apartment would start to bang only after I had left in the morning.

My solution to so unbearable a situation was this: When the clock radio blared at 6 a.m. sharp, I would hurry into the kitchen to turn on the hot water tap in the bathtub (it was next to the refrigerator––the toilet, happily, did have a room of its own) and set a cup of water to boil on the stove. In went a pinch of salt and two handfuls of oatmeal. Then I fled back to bed.

Exactly half an hour later, the oatmeal was done and the kitchen (blocked off from the rest of the apartment by a tacked-up army blanket) was warm from the tubful of hot water. (The oven would have done the job as well, but I paid for the gas; the landlord paid for the hot water.) My clothes were waiting on the kitchen chair. I pulled them on, gobbled down the oatmeal, and dashed down Ninth Street for the First Avenue bus.

People who say they don’t like oatmeal have probably never tasted it. Our own oat porridge is mostly made with rolled oats, at best, or “instant” oats, mixed up right in the bowl, yielding a substance as much like real oatmeal as instant coffee resembles the genuine brew––which is to say, not very much at all. An honest batch of oatmeal must simmer in a pot for at least half an hour. That gentle cooking brings out its nutty taste, its velvety aroma, a texture the mouth can linger over, and a warmth that glows in the stomach until lunchtime.