Features & Stories

Story by Trudy Frisk
Photo courtesy of Trudy Frisk

Which camper is eating oatmeal?
After all these years my son can still surprise me.  When I asked him recently if he wanted me to get him any groceries, he replied, “Yes, some porridge.”  “When did you start liking porridge?” I asked. “Ï always liked it. But, not the Plain Jane porridge.  I like porridge with flavour.”  This was news.

Yet, porridge is as Canadian as winter.  It fueled the exploration and settlement of our country. I can’t say for certain what the early French settlers and adventurers ate, but, once the Scots began to set up forts and trade for furs, we know those voyageur canoes contained a goodly cargo of oatmeal.  

In fact, the original saying might have been, “Keep your porridge dry!”  Imagine a weight of soggy oatmeal impeding travel!  Likely it was much later that shooters adapted the maxim to “Keep your powder dry!”

When I say ‘porridge’ I mean oatmeal.  Sunny Boy or Red River Cereal are also hot cereals, but they have odd textures and are full of strange grains. Cream of Wheat is bland and inoffensive.  Oatmeal, the food that sustained Canada, is simple basic crushed oats, requiring long and careful cooking to become tasty.

We don’t usually think of oatmeal as cowboy food.  The romantic image has a cowboy at his campfire drinking coffee (black), or eating flapjacks from a chuck-wagon.  However, oatmeal played its part in ranching history. “Tell me about the years you travelled with the threshing crew.” Mona Saemerow asked her rancher husband, Mel.  “Do you want me to tell you about staying at places where the breakfast oatmeal was so thick and heavy you could stand on it? “ Mel inquired.

As Mel implied, there’s a downside to oatmeal.  Properly cooked, well mixed with brown sugar and gurgling under milk, it can be tolerable.  Improperly cooked, and there are many ways of doing that, it’s a lumpy nightmare.

 Our mother, who could create a banquet for twelve from a can of salmon, an egg and some stale bread, never mastered porridge.  Many a winter morning my brother and I stared stubbornly at the lumpy mass congealing in our bowls, willing it to vanish.  “If you don’t eat your porridge, you can’t go to school!” came the parental decree.  “Win, win.” ,we would have thought if that expression had been current.  “We don’t have to eat porridge, and we can go skiing!” They didn’t mean it of course.  We had to eat the stuff, ice cold by now, and go to school.  Is it any wonder, we grew up to be suspicious cynics?

Many Canadians had similar childhood experiences. In fact oatmeal was the breakfast food of farmers and ranchers across western Canada.  A friend of mine, born January 8th, on a Saskatchewan farm, swears that, after she and her mother were made comfortable, the first food that passed her lips was a spoonful of porridge guided by her mother’s loving hand.  This, she insists, is why she developed an all consuming hatred for it, refusing as an adult to swallow it in any form, unless on a mountaineering expedition. Then she mixed it with rolled wheat, bran, flax seed, raisins and a whole wheat cream of wheat milled in Vulcan, Alberta and known, therefore, as Vulcanite.  Brown sugar completed the camouflage and it was declared edible.

The hiking group’s best porridge ever was cooked on a trip when the weather had turned nasty and they decided to go home days earlier than planned.  They didn’t want to carry out unnecessary supplies. Acting on the theory that it’s easier to carry food in the stomach than the pack, they cooked most of their porridge.  One member who always hiked with a bottle of over-proof rum decided to lighten his load by pouring the rum on the porridge.  “Rain? What rain?”

I’ve never been fond of porridge. If anything could resign me to it, it was the ambrosia dished up by the guides each morning on a kayak tour of Clayoquot Sound. Cooked in apple juice, sprinkled with raisins and almonds, it was scrumptious.  (It may be just a figment of my imagination, but I swear there were chocolate bits.)  The most anti-morning people on the tour scraped their bowls and looked longingly for more.

Oatmeal has its defenders.  My sister points out, somewhat testily, that, for hundreds of years, oatmeal has been used as both a medicine and a cosmetic.  An oatmeal paste soothes rashes, insect bites and poison ivy irritation.  An oatmeal bath relieves dry skin. Oatmeal facial beauty masks were probably used by Mary, Queen of Scots to eliminate wrinkles. Furthermore, it’s said people who eat oatmeal every day have cleaner arteries.  As my sister sums it up, ”You might as well eat some while you’re soaking in an oatmeal bath in the tub.”

My son’s final word on the flavoured instant oatmeal he prefers; “It’s fast and filling. It never stays around here long.” Those Scottish fur traders would understand.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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