This morning, it was cool enough – after a weekend of drizzling rain, including a blissful Sunday afternoon by the fire – to break out the oats. There’s something wonderfully satisfying about the first bowl of porridge for the year. The winter veges are planted, the grass has stopped growing at a speed of knots, I’ve managed to stop automatically writing 2010 as the current year, and the fairy wrens are busy peering in at my office window every morning. It’s cool enough to work in the garden for longer hours, and the sunsets are glorious, but every now and then there’s still one of those days when the beach beckons: golden, warm late mornings.
Eating porridge always reminds me of the famous scene from Dickens’s Oliver Twist, in which Oliver asks for more gruel. As a child, reading the book, I didn’t realise that ‘gruel’ was porridge. Instead, I imagined some loose, watery, poisonous-tasting stuff. I associated the word with its rhyming cousin ‘cruel’, and imagined that eating this foul substance was somewhat more akin to swallowing those other staples of the Victorian novels I read: Cod Liver Oil, and Lamprey. The scene seemed gruesome to me then, a far cry from the warm winter kitchens of my own privileged childhood. Somehow, I had confused the threat to eat another child with the possibility that the gruel was, in fact, some boiled down soup of workhouse children:
Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
‘Please, sir, I want some more.’
Mr Bumble the Beadle is promptly called, and after a brief comic interlude in which it seems impossible for the overfed adults to imagine a child asking for more of such noisome food, the Beadle declares that Oliver will no doubt be hung. Confirming, for me, that gruel and death were intimately connected.
There is also that classic rhyme, ‘Pease Porridge Hot’, the clapping game of which my sisters and I played on winter mornings, while our socks and underwear were warming on the heater, and dad was making porridge:
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
‘Pease porridge’ or ‘pease pottage’ is actually a mushy peas dish, made of boiled peas (usually Carlins) with salt and spices, and sometimes with some bacon or ham. Not breakfast fare at all: something more akin to very thick pea and ham soup.
Instead, in my memory, the big pot on the stove in which my father soaked oats almost perpetually during winter reminded me far more of the magical porridge pot in the fairytale ‘Sweet Porridge’ (Der süße Brei), collected/transcribed by the Brothers Grimm and translated (in 1884) by Margaret Taylor. There is, of course, that other fairytale in which porridge features, along with a family of bears and a selfish little girl, but ‘Sweet Porridge’ was always my favourite. No breaking and entering, or broken beds, instead the whole tale is very short, but delicious. I particularly loved that line about how, after they received the miraculous pot, the girl and her mother ‘ate sweet porridge as often as they chose’. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood how doubly magical such a pot would have seemed to its listeners in the context of the great famines of the 1770s (especially in Saxony and southern Germany) and again in 1816 (The famous ‘Year Without a Summer’):
There was a poor but good little girl who lived alone with her mother, and they no longer had anything to eat. So the child went into the forest, and there an aged woman met her who was aware of her sorrow, and presented her with a little pot, which when she said, “Cook, little pot, cook,” would cook good, sweet porridge, and when she said, “Stop, little pot,” it ceased to cook.
The girl took the pot home to her mother, and now they were freed from their poverty and hunger, and ate sweet porridge as often as they chose.
Once on a time when the girl had gone out, her mother said, “Cook, little pot, cook.” And it did cook and she ate till she was satisfied, and then she wanted the pot to stop cooking, but did not know the word. So it went on cooking and the porridge rose over the edge, and still it cooked on until the kitchen and whole house were full, and then the next house, and then the whole street, just as if it wanted to satisfy the hunger of the whole world, and there was the greatest distress, but no one knew how to stop it. At last when only one single house remained, the child came home and just said, “Stop, little pot,” and it stopped and gave up cooking, and whosoever wished to return to the town had to eat his way back.
Es war einmal ein armes, frommes Mädchen, das lebte mit seiner Mutter allein, und sie hatten nichts mehr zu essen. Da ging das Kind hinaus in den Wald, und begegnete ihm da eine alte Frau, die wußte seinen Jammer schon und schenkte ihm ein Töpfchen, zu dem sollt es sagen: »Töpfchen, koche«, so kochte es guten, süßen Hirsebrei, und wenn es sagte: »Töpfchen, steh«, so hörte es wieder auf zu kochen.
Das Mädchen brachte den Topf seiner Mutter heim, und nun waren sie ihrer Armut und ihres Hungers ledig und aßen süßen Brei, sooft sie wollten.
Auf eine Zeit war das Mädchen ausgegangen, da sprach die Mutter: »Töpfchen, koche«, da kocht es, und sie ißt sich satt; nun will sie, daß das Töpfchen wieder aufhören soll, aber sie weiß das Wort nicht. Also kocht es fort, und der Brei steigt über den Rand hinaus und kocht immerzu, die Küche und das ganze Haus voll und das zweite Haus und dann die Straße, als wollt’s die ganze Welt satt machen, und ist die größte Not, und kein Mensch weiß sich da zu helfen. Endlich, wie nur noch ein einziges Haus übrig ist, da kommt das Kind heim und spricht nur: »Töpfchen, steh«, da steht es und hört auf zu kochen, und wer wieder in die Stadt wollte, der mußte sich durchessen.
So today – to fend off the inevitable Monday-itis that comes after a beautiful weekend in which the weather starts to turn, we had porridge. Our first warm, sweet bowl for the year. Luckily, we know the magic words to make the little pot stop!