Gruel

Gruel
The disreputable cook from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Ellesmere manuscripts, c. 1410.

" … fills me up without much fuss."

My earliest culinary successes came long before any literary success arrived, indeed, back when I was still essentially pre-literate. I'd read very few books by then and found reading tedious. I relied more upon my instincts then, rarely referring to any authority before undertaking a new activity. Cooking had long interested me, but my mother was no chef. My early influences included the Cub Scout Handbook, which illustrated how to boil water over a campfire. Once out on my own and poor, I learned through sad repetition how to make supper. A friend had gifted us with an enormous cylinder of a spongy protein powder athletes use when training, and I took to incorporating that stuff into darned near everything. Most of my meals amounted to naive inventions, eatable after a fashion, but rarely choice. The mysterious powder became the primary ingredient in what I called Giant Cookie Muffins, which resembled neither cookies nor muffins, but which carried more protein on board than the typical cattle boat. They were chewy to the point of spongy, and very, very curiously textured. You've probably never eaten anything even remotely like them. I also baked bread in empty coffee cans, having no proper bread pans, and I can confidently report that it always smelled like freshly baked bread, if not always tasting precisely like it.

I made many crude casseroles in those days, dishes which could serve as breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and often did.
I called every one of these creations Cosmic Fred, because I firmly believed that a dish should properly have a name. I used the same basic recipe to make Cosmic Fred as I use today to guide almost every supper's preparation: first, use whatever threatening to fester in the refrigerator. Early instances of the dish included hefty infusions from that bottomless container of protein powder, but also often featured barley, polenta, or even oatmeal, whatever grain seemed cheapest at the co-op. It might also include foraged greens, dandelions or sorrel, collected from off footpaths in a nearby park to avoid pet pee, and maybe a found mushroom or two. One version included seaweed we'd harvested from along the bay front, though no amount of washing eliminated all the sand, so that supper, we decided, was dedicated to polishing our teeth. That version came as close to uneatable as any meal I've ever concocted, and we swore to avoid seaweed in the future.

Those days living on an unheated sleeping porch now long past, my palate still favors the one pot wonders, dishes fitting for any meal, any time of the day. I've been brewing up a pot of beans most weeks, the one meal even my mother could reliably plate. The Muse prefers more diverse suppers, but breakfast and lunch for me might well be a bowl of those beans, each pot different, each predictably luscious. I've taken to combining leftover oatmeal, grits, or potatoes into my pot of beans, producing even more substantial meals from that same old pot. I call the result gruel, and I think it even satisfies the dictionary definition of the stuff, since time immemorial, the traditional meal of galley slaves, peasants, and soldiers. Gruel was most likely the real Breakfast of Champions, and also the lunch and dinner of losers throughout recorded history, especially back when calorie content trumped pretty. Also called porridge, it little resembled modern oatmeal, Cream of Wheat®, or Roman Meal®, and might include dried peas, for a Peas Porridge, an acquired taste.

I heat my Gruel in a double boiler, perhaps the single truly essential cookware. I can throw the goop into the suspended pot, heat the water underneath with a steady slow flame, and the meal's waiting for me when my writing coma finally recedes, with never a scorch left underneath. I can refrigerate and reheat in the same suspendible pot, so clean-up might only come near the end of a week. I could microwave the stuff, but even properly prepared beans tend to explode under microwave assaults, so unless I wrap the bowl in wax paper before reheating, I make a mess. That process might be quick, but cold spots remain within dense porridge. Slow and easy over a simmering pot produces a meal to reliably hit the old spot.

Gruel could properly qualify for classification under the general heading of Cosmic Fred, and might otherwise prove unclassifiable. When I add leftover oat groats, it seems more breakfast than it does when I add a few leftover potatoes. Add both, or, as I'm doing this morning, introduce blue corn grits to the mess, and it might prove worthy of an averted glance. I can eat with my eyes closed if really necessary. Dressing it with a splash of olive oil, I might sit down to a meal any medieval monk might readily recognize. Further, it seems the absolutely proper meal for Pandemic times, when making do has become a sure and certain sign of solidarity. We do not need to go out for breakfast as long as we have a pot of my Gruel to reheat. The Lord in the manor on the hill might derisively refer to my breakfast as swill, but it fills me up without much fuss.

IMG_4624Gruel
Gruel in double boiler with Red Chile Great Northern Beans and Blue Corn Grits

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved








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