Alimentary, My Dear
Oatmeal: Simple and Good and Cheap
Or, the Virtues of Eating Like a Horse
By Tamia Nelson
September 21, 2010
There are people for whom breakfast is the high point of the day. I'm not one of them. I'm ornery as a bear in the early morning, but I don't have Bruin's appetite. Give me coffee, and lots of it. That's all I've ever really wanted. My mother and I even had running battles around the breakfast table when I was a kid. She wasn't about to send her brood off to school without food in their bellies. I had little enthusiasm for anything but toast, however. (Coffee wasn't on the breakfast menu for us kids.) Dark‑brown toast dripping in butter, that is, not the dried‑bread (with‑a‑smear‑of‑grape‑jelly) surrogate that my brothers wolfed down. But my mother was every bit as stubborn as I was. She didn't have time to cater to singular tastes, not when she had only one two‑slot toaster and lots of mouths to feed. The upshot? More often than not, breakfast meant oatmeal. And I hated it.
I hadn't heard of Samuel ("Dictionary") Johnson back then, of course, and I doubt I'd have had the patience to unravel his intricate, 18th‑century prose even if I had. But I'd certainly have nodded approvingly at his dictionary's famous definition of oats if I'd known about it. "Oats," the notoriously curmudgeonly lexicographer noted, were "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." Don't get me wrong. I've always loved horses, and I've got a soft spot in my heart for Scots, too. But Dictionary Johnson's rather arch putdown would have resonated with me, nonetheless. So you'll understand why I regarded my mother's oatmeal as something little short of gruel and unusual punishment. Still, I seldom escaped to school without first scraping my bowl clean.
That changed when I left home. At last I could indulge my passion for coffee‑only breakfasts without stint, though I occasionally had a couple of slices of toast, as well. Toast done my way, obviously. But then, in my twenties, I joined up with a mountaineering expedition. It didn't take long for me to learn that breakfasting on coffee alone was no longer an option. I'd have to change my ways if I didn't want to fall behind.
I didn't. But guess what was on our breakfast menu high in the mountains? A hint: It wasn't toast. It was oatmeal. Oatmeal with fresh fruit for the first week. Oatmeal with dried fruit thereafter. Sometimes it was seasoned with a liberal dusting of cinnamon or ground ginger, but brown sugar was the dominant embellishment, dropped by the handful into the huge pot which bubbled over the aptly named "roarer" burner of one of the expedition's two Optimus 111b's. A hapless cook once spooned in the better part of a jar of peanut butter, as well. This didn't earn him many rave reviews from our party of amateur food critics, but we ate the stuff anyway. A glacier traverse is no place to bonk.
Peanut butter notwithstanding, this summer expedition witnessed a sea change in my attitude toward breakfast, and toward oatmeal, as well. It wasn't love at first bite, to be sure, but romance blossomed among the crags nonetheless. And by trip's end, I was hooked. Which is why, when — later in the same year — Farwell and I were preparing for a month‑long trek down a wild northern river, oatmeal now had a prominent place on the breakfast menu.
That was long time ago. But breakfast remains a part my daily routine. And while oatmeal has yet to become my favorite way to start the day, it now makes regular appearances on my breakfast table, at home and in the backcountry. It's cheap, it's easy to prepare, and it travels well. It's also a first‑rate fuel, just the thing I need when a hard day's paddling (or pedaling) looms ahead. Moreover, because oatmeal is a hot cereal, it's doubly welcome on cold mornings. There's nothing like a steaming bowl of sweet oatmeal to fortify you against the clammy tendrils of chill mist rising from cold autumnal waters.
What about it? Have I sold you on the virtues of eating like a horse? Good! But before you rush off to the store, take a minute to…
Consider Your Options
Of course, there's such a thing as too much choice, and with most of one aisle in my local HyperMart given over to oatmeal in various guises, that's a real possibility. You can find cardboard drums of "old fashioned" and "quick‑cooking" oatmeal, along with boxes containing single‑serving packets of the "instant" variety, in a near‑infinite range of flavors. (It's possible to buy instant oatmeal in bulk from specialty stores, but I rarely see it in the HyperMart.) Every one of these alternatives has merits as camping fare, but it always helps to know what you're getting. So let's look at each type in turn, beginning with…
"Old Fashioned" Oatmeal For true aficionados, it's the only alternative. Toothsome, with a rich nutty flavor, this is the oatmeal that Grandma simmered on the cast‑iron stove in the kitchen of the old homestead. It's not a good choice for an impatient paddler, however. Count on it taking about 10 minutes to cook. Don't plan on wandering off during that time, either. You'll need to keep an eye on the pot to stop it from boiling over, and unless you like scraping your breakfast into your bowl, you'll want to stir the cooking oatmeal frequently, as well.
Quick‑Cooking Oatmeal As the name suggests, this cooks quickly, taking only about one‑third the time required by its "old‑fashioned" counterpart. Just bring water to a boil, pour in the oatmeal, and simmer till it's cooked through. Total time? Three to four minutes.
Instant Oatmeal The lazy camper's friend. "Man‑cooking" at its finest. (Despite the name, man‑cooking is not limited to the male of the species.) If you can boil water, you've mastered the necessary skill set. Simply pour the boiling water over the contents of one or more packets in a deep bowl or small pot. (Can't decide between "Maple and Brown Sugar" and "Cinnamon and Apple"? No problem. Have both! Mix and match at will. I've yet to find a hungry trekker who was satisfied with only one packet.) Stir. Then cover for a minute or two to give the oatmeal time to take up the water. Now eat. (Careful! Don't burn your mouth.) It doesn't get much simpler than this, does it?
That's it. And which do I use? Well, at home, I'm with Grandma. I go for the "old‑fashioned" stuff. But in camp, I usually opt for the man‑cooking alternative: instant oatmeal. Why? Easy. Backcountry breakfasts tend to be hurried affairs. There are tents to strike, bags to pack, and miles to go before supper. It's not a good time for slow and watchful simmering, and who wants to spend precious minutes scrubbing out pots covered in sticky oatmeal when a river beckons? Not me.
But there's one problem — convenience doesn't come cheap. To judge from some price tags, those handy single‑serving packets might as well be filled with gold dust. Luckily, there's a way to have the best of both worlds, to marry the convenience of instant with the economy of "old‑fashioned." You can even go the HyperMart one better, flavoring the product to your tastes and tailoring the serving size to hearty appetites. It just takes…
A Little DIY
The downside? You'll have to do some work in your kitchen at home. But it's not complicated, and the only tool you'll need is a blender or food processor. Start with "quick‑cooking" oatmeal (that's the stuff that you simmer for three or four minutes). It's available in bulk, and while it's not as cheap as the "old‑fashioned" variety, it's a lot cheaper than instant. Three cups of the stuff is enough to begin with. A little salt is the only other ingredient of note, though you'll also want some plastic bags to hold the final product.
Ready? OK. Put one cup of the quick‑cooking oatmeal into a completely dry blender or food processor. Now macerate the oats till they're the consistency of flour. Next, put the remaining two cups of oatmeal into a bowl and stir in the oatmeal flour, mixing thoroughly. Here's what they look like before they're mixed together:
In camp, bring ¾ cup of water to a boil for each serving. (Like runny oatmeal? Use more water. Chewy oatmeal? Use less.) Empty the oatmeal into your bowl or cup and pour boiling water over it. Stir. Let stand for a minute or two. Eat. (I reuse the now‑empty plastic bags. If they're kept clean and dry, they'll last indefinitely.)
Too bland? Right! Let's ring the changes (NB Amounts are for a single‑serving packet; adjust as needed):
Apple Pie Oatmeal Add two tablespoons of chopped dried apples, a half teaspoon of dried cinnamon, a quarter teaspoon of powdered cardamom (my secret ingredient), and a pinch of nutmeg.
Berry Nice Oatmeal Add two tablespoons of dried sweetened cranberries ("craisins").
Raisin Oatmeal Put a couple of tablespoons of raisins in each packet.
Fortified Oatmeal Add two tablespoons of oat bran, one tablespoon of wheat bran, and a teaspoon of whole flax seeds.
Maple Country Oatmeal Stir two tablespoons of maple sugar crystals into each packet.
Brown Sugar Oatmeal Add a couple‑three tablespoons of light‑ or dark‑brown sugar.
Fruit and "Creme" Oatmeal Put a couple of tablespoons of dried fruit into the oatmeal, along with one tablespoon of dried milk or, if you prefer, one tablespoon of non‑dairy creamer.
A word of warning: Unless you find the prospect of a breakfast lottery enticing — will it be Raisin Oatmeal today, or Fruit and Creme? — be sure you label each bag. Of course, if you're so minded, you can always carry your homemade instant oatmeal in bulk, adjusting portions to suit the day's appetites and adding any extra ingredients that tickle your fancy. But keep the proportion of water to oatmeal constant.
Oatmeal. This hearty, humble grain has nourished Scots and horses for centuries, and you couldn't ask for better company than that, could you?