Not Oatmeal, Kate Branca

On a Sunday morning in small-town Delaware, sometime between 2003 and 2009, there is a bowl of oatmeal intended for my mother sitting on the kitchen counter. Let’s say it’s spring. Outside, if the wind is due south, you can catch a whiff from the mushroom farms. I exist at some point in middle or high school, pajama-clad and hunched cozily over a pancake. My father and I make eye contact as he clatters through a drawer for a spoon. The oatmeal steams eagerly. In about 25 minutes, we’ll be late to church.

“She’s gonna let it go cold,” I say. The bowl feels too close to the counter’s edge, the spoon swung over its side.

The kitchen is a horseshoe and we are all at our customary positions, my father at its center between the sink and the stove, I on a stool at the counter watching his broad back for clues to his mood and resolve. He’s cheerful, dedicated to his task. In fact, he’s been humming since he reached for the Quaker Oats can. My mother is, for the moment, absent.

Only moments ago she was here, her six-foot frame bustling around the bend in her giant pink terrycloth robe to make her breakfast request. But by now, occupied by her curlers at the far corner of the house, she’s forgotten about it entirely. The lonely bowl will soon develop an opaque and sticky film before collapsing at its center like a poorly measured cake. In 30 minutes, auburn hair curled and lipstick fresh, my mother will gauge a scoop from the sedimentary food and swallow it with effort and a grimace, my father and I watching covertly from the door. “Eugh. Okay, time to go.”

I was vehemently anti-oatmeal then. I imagined that eating it, cold or otherwise, would be like consuming a bowl of wet cement: grey, gritty, and once in your stomach, all too likely to set. Add to this images from Oliver Twist and other sorry depictions of porridge, and my initial impressions of boiled grain were widely confirmed and unlikely to change. College made matters worse. The oatmeal served in the giant metal warming trays never cooled. It cooked forever, even longer for weekend brunch, until it was carted away, nibbled at one corner and baked down into a brick.

Even though she never finished hers on Sundays, my mother suggested oatmeal to me with alarming sincerity, coaxing out a long-unused expression in her eyes; one once employed to say, “Honey, you need to take your medicine” or “I’m sorry, but we must find that splinter.” I understand these moments had nothing to do with breakfast. The poet Galway Kinnell agreed with my mother’s subconscious. He didn’t think anyone should have to eat oatmeal alone: “That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with,” he says in his poem on the subject. He invites John Keats to eat with him and Keats agrees, given its “gluey lumpishness, hint of slime.” Keats himself shared porridge with Milton and Spenser, though, alone with his bowl, he wrote.

I must have struck her as a natural candidate for a porridge partner. I enjoyed oatmeal cookies and bowls of granola. When my mother ate her porridge hot (when she made it herself), it involved a rim of cool milk and brown sugar or peaches. I’d pass through the kitchen on a late summer morning and find my mouth watering at the smell of warm brown sugar, the imagined feel of its granules among grains. Had she added butter as well? Quickly, I’d reach for a box of granola. It seemed I was resisting the hot dish on principle, reaching for distance instead of closeness, coolness instead of comfort.

My mother’s “serving suggestion,” by the way, is genius, or at least culinarily sound. Since we humans delight in foods because of the relationships between tastes, smells, temperatures, and textures, draping a piping hot bowl of soft grains with cold cream gives a very ordinary food a pleasurable dynamic. It has the same appeal as cool guacamole on a crunchy taco or ice cream on warm apple pie. Add cinnamon with your brown sugar and sweetness augments spice. Add pecans to those peaches and not only do you have bitter and sweet, warm and cool, but also silken softness and buttery crunch.

Hence my eventual surrender, though it took about 10 years. These days, pouring the hot and syrupy grains into a bowl feels like spreading a picnic blanket for my senses. Every decision made afterwards is a web of contrasts—a many-layered painting or a science experiment. Granted, any number of grains and legumes provide exactly that. A bowl of rice or a piece of bread are equally canvas-like in the eyes of the mouth. But something about the heat of oatmeal or its capacity to coat promises a more emotional experience from stovetop to table. Since I moved out on my own, these grains and I have started each morning in a loving dialogue, they are generous enough to give up their starch in hot water, and I am patient: stirring, spreading, doting with flavor. The kitchen is quiet, save for the soft puff and burble from the pan. I eat them with a scoop of peanut butter and a mug of coffee, at my bar-height table or under a blanket, alone, feeling extravagant and austere at the same time.

The oat is no stranger to initial skepticism like mine. While barley, wheat, and rice have almost always enjoyed high standing, the oat was longtime considered a weed. (Continued use of the phrase “sow wild oats” to describe youthful folly suggests we still do.) Once someone finally determined you could cultivate and consume them (sometime between 3200 and 600 BC—The Bronze Age) those farmers also discovered their annoying tendency to drop seed and rot as soon as they hit “yellow ripeness.” If you were going to eat oats, you’d better do so fast, or else determine how to process and preserve the grains before they soured. Oats were tempting, but dangerous. Oats became food of livestock and the downtrodden. Everyone else was satisfied with barley, wheat, and rice.

On those Sunday mornings in my parents’ kitchen, from my seat at the horseshoe counter, I’d study my father at the sink and stove. He was a sturdy man, then in his mid-50s, 5’8” tall (four inches short of my mother), and visibly Italian. His broomy mustache gave both humor and gravitas to his every expression, likening him equally to Che Guevara and Groucho Marcs. Planted at house-center, he was predictable, watchful. My mother, on the other hand, was a whirlwind. Each time she returned to the kitchen ready for church with her hair in wild whisps and her torso in florals or an angular striped coat, my father would ground himself at the sink, busy his hands and peer over his shoulder to watch her bite of cold oatmeal. “Eugh, Phillip.”  She’d approach him quickly. “Thanks but no thanks, dear.” Still beneath the faucet, he’d crane his cheek to her lips and wince playfully to accept his wife’s kiss. There was a formula: orbit the husband, make the request, provide distance, accept, reject, approach. The kiss was negotiated, and taken with pleasure but still visibly withheld—the only kiss I knew.

A particularly patriotic Scottish recipe claims the Roman Empire fell to oatmeal. When the Romans moved northwest (79 AD) in their tight and disciplined legions, conquering and collecting troops along the way, they eventually reached the hearty Caledonian tribes of Scotland. The Caledonians had no intention of living under Roman rule, having known the taste of independence. They leveraged their unusual strength and knowledge of the territory through guerilla tactics to dwindle the Roman army. And it worked, for a time. But their careful planning gave way to rallied confidence and when the Caledonians took the Romans head on, despite being twice their number, they suffered enormous losses, burned their own villages, and fell back into the woods.

Of course, porridge had absolutely nothing to do with the events on the northern front, nor the end of the empire. It was luck that delivered the Scots. The barbarians drew the Romans off to the south and the only subsequent return to the northern border was viewed more as a political maneuver than a conquering campaign. And then, sometime after for reasons still hotly disputed, Rome fell.

It’s an entirely romantic concept that a food could play any measurable role in the downfall of such a great empire, or even in the stature and strength of its opposition. But I get a kick out of imagining great Scotsmen with round bellies leaping from the tangled forests of the highlands, dribbles of oats and cream clinging to their beards, the Romans agog for just long enough to doom their ranks. Maybe they munched on oat cakes between attacks.

Here’s how the ancient Scots made their porridge:

Ingredients:

4 cups roughly chopped oats

Twice that of water

Salt

Butter

A bowl of cream

Instructions:

  1. Deposit oats in an iron pot over a flame, followed by water and stir with a Spirtle (also Spurtle)—a wooden stirring implement shaped rather like a drum mallet or a magic wand, specially designed to break up lumps in Scottish porridge.
  2. Continue stirring only with your right hand and always clockwise to ensure the devil won’t come for you.
  3. Add salt and butter to taste.
  4. Once the mixture is thick and tender, gather the men and serve in very large bowls. Place a separate cold bowl of cream at the center of the table.
  5. Eat while hot, dipping each spoonful of oats into the communal bowl of cream. Press leftover oats into a wooden drawer. Once cooled, slice into cakes for lunch.

We’ll return to the kitchen for another Sunday, but one several years earlier. My father and I have spent Father’s Day morning picking tomatoes from our small garden plot at the nature center down the road where I love to pump water from the well. I am tall for five, and attempting to be smaller, my legs folded underneath me as I crouch behind the high back of one of our kitchen chairs. My father is at the sink, his face drawn, shoulders drooping beneath his soil-smudged t-shirt. My mother, hair done, in a long blue summer dress, is standing between the fridge and the horseshoe counter, where our bushel of tomatoes sits just a little too close to the edge.

“What were you even thinking, Phillip?! Hm?” She is crying now, gesturing wildly, her wingspan threatening the kitchen. I’m not sure if she’s upset about our trip to the garden or the crooked haircut I’d received the day before. I’m using the back of the chair to cover the swerve in my bangs.

“I’m sorry. But they needed picking and I thought it would be nice to make fresh pizza for dinner.”

“No! You know what you’re supposed to do on Father’s Day? You supposed to spend the day with your familyall of us—and then go out for a nice dinner together. But instead, you do what? You decide to leave me here by myself and waste half the day picking tomatoes that we don’t need, only to come home filthy and out of time to do anything else! Am I the only one who wants to do nice things together as a family!?”

“That’s exactly what we can do. I can take these fresh tomatoes and make…”

“Forget your stupid tomatoes!”

With a great swing, my mother delivers a fist to the bushel and sends a spray of tomatoes across the kitchen, onto the floor, against the little white couch that sits against the wall across from the opening of the horseshoe. I’ve just registered the pale red streaks across the broad white tiles, the splatter on the skirt of the couch, when, with the clatter of keys and the slam of the door, she’s gone.

My father doesn’t waste time in wetting a sponge, righting the bushel, scooping the first few split tomatoes inside, but he moves in slow motion. I straighten cautiously, climb down from the chair, tiptoe through the juice.

“Well, it looks like homemade pizza’s off the menu,” he mutters.

I giggle, pick up a flattened tomato. The seeds sag from the split in its side, its skin already in wrinkles. “Maybe not,” I volunteer. “But maybe she gave you a head start on the sauce.” I’m hoping he’ll laugh, offer a sense of normalcy, but he doesn’t. He just drags the sponge through the pale red juice.

“Are you mad at me?”

“No, kid, I’m not mad. But we should get this cleaned up before your mother gets back. And figure out what the hell we’re gonna do for dinner.”

Occasionally for breakfast, I have company. My boyfriend, who lives a few cities over, visits on the weekends. He has returned to the comforts of oatmeal after a similarly skeptical adolescence and I enjoy making it for him. On good days, we coordinate our efforts down to the moment. He boils the water and I pack the pour-over with coffee. I stir the oatmeal and he sets the table. He takes his with cinnamon and maple syrup if I have it, honey if I don’t. I take mine with peanut butter or an egg. Things get a little more harried in the kitchen when I make one of my more extravagant bowls.

Here’s how to make oatmeal for two:

Ingredients:

1 cup rolled oats

2 cups water

¼ cup peas and ½ cup mushrooms, cooked

1 egg

A sprinkle of white cheddar, nutritional yeast, or parmesan cheese

Maple syrup or honey

Cinnamon

Vanilla and salt

Instructions:

  1. Combine oats and water in a pan and set to medium-high heat. (Make the coffee once the kettle has boiled.)
  2. When oats begin to froth, remember to ask him how he’s feeling and what the news is today. Thank him for setting the table and washing the bowls.
  3. Once oatmeal is nearly thick and warmed through, fry an egg in a separate pan coated in butter or olive oil. Appear available for a kiss.
  4. Remove oatmeal into two bowls. Remember, suddenly, the maple syrup, cinnamon, vanilla and salt for his oats and bring them all to his place at the table. Apologize for taking too long with your extravagant egg. Top your bowl with the egg, curse if you break it, and add cheese or yeast on top.
  5. Eat quickly, together, before it gets cold.

For a while now on my visits to Delaware, my parents have marveled at my early morning habits, my drinking of black coffee, my making of oats. Today, my father and I idle within the horseshoe, his mustache disappearing and reappearing behind the rim of his coffee mug, I at the stove. I can feel the effort it takes for him to relinquish the wooden spoon, his left hand pretending to relax at his side. I’m considering whether he’s ever watched me cook before when he asks me if I’ll make him a bowl. “The way you make it.”

I’m surprised. I’ve only seen my father eat breakfast a handful of times, usually a cold pancake slipped from the bottom of the pile. He rolls it up and eats it like an empty crepe. “Sure. We going to the gym after?” I say. He groans dramatically, hands on his belly, exerts a strained “yes,” and leaves the room.

“The way I make it,” in this case, implied peanut butter rather than an egg. In addition to the scoop of Jiff, I use a pinch of salt and a dash of vanilla extract, with a shaker of cinnamon on the side.

I move to my customary place at the counter with my own bowl and wait for my father to appear. He does, though after a time. His oats are still steaming, but they’re cooling fast, developing the first layer of eggshell film. I’m nervous. He eyes the stuff (“Hmm…”) and takes a mouthful, nodding. “That’s interesting.”

“What’s interesting?” My mother emerges in an updated mahogany robe.

“Try this,” he says. She asks what it is. “Peanut butter oatmeal.” She shakes her head no.

I watch my father as he abandons his bowl to wash my pot and wooden spoon in the sink. “You don’t like it? I can make you something else.”

“No, no it’s good.” He shakes the water from his hands and raises the spoon for another bite, chewing thoughtfully. Through the glob in his mouth: “It’s just not oatmeal.” He’s still nodding, agreeing with himself. Swallows. “It’s something different from oatmeal.”

© Kate Branca

Kate Branca is an emerging nonfiction writer with a passion for the performing art. She was first published last year in Flyway Journal of Writing & the Environment, which nominated her work for a Pushcart Prize. Kate is also the Editor-In-Chief for phoebe journal.

Twitter: twitter.com/kaytaybayy

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