Please, mom, I want less.
I can’t remember when exactly I began to taunt Kid A with gruel.
The first time I threatened him (along the lines of, cut it out, or Kid B and I will be having bacon cheeseburgers at Five Guys, while you get an extra-large gruel), I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. Just the word itself was effective enough. It sounds like gristle, grease, gross, goop, and cruel, all congealed into one abominable foodstuff.
But there shouldn’t be anything that disgusting about gruel. It’s super-watery porridge. That’s it.
I found a recipe for this simple, economical dish in The Curious Cookbook: Viper Soup, Badger Ham, Stewed Sparrows, and 100 More Historic Recipes by Peter Ross, with a forward by Heston Blumenthal (British Library and Mark Batty Publisher, 2012).
In fact gruel was one of the few recipes in the book that I would actually consider making. Remember the Seinfeld episode where George gets traded to Tyler Chicken and part of the deal is a “fermented chicken beverage”? Well Cock Ale exists. The book includes a 1669 recipe, as well as the aside that Samuel Pepys records drinking it on February 2, 1663.
I won’t be making Whore’s Farts either, though these are just a variety of fritter. The name might come from their lightness, Ross observes, or from the noise the batter makes when squeezed from a large syringe into the pan.
To make a pint of gruel for invalids
TO MAKE GRUEL. 1 tablespoonful of Robinson’s patent groats [oats], 2 tablespoonfuls of cold water, 1 pint of boiling water. Mix the prepared groats smoothly with the cold water in a basin; pour over them the boiling water, stirring it all the time. Put it into a very clean saucepan; boil the gruel for 10 minutes, keeping it well stirred; sweeten to taste, and serve. It may be flavored with a small piece of lemon-peel, by boiling it in the gruel, or a little grated nutmeg may be put in; but in these matters the taste of the patient should be consulted. Pour the gruel in a tumbler and serve. When wine is allowed to the invalid, 2 tablespoonfuls of sherry or port make this preparation very nice. In cases of colds, the same quantity of spirits is sometimes added instead of wine. Sufficient to make a pint of gruel.
—Mrs. Isabella Beaton, Book of Household Management, 1861
As I looked more deeply into the fascinating world of gruel, I discovered that hot malted milk is a form of it—though manufacturers like Ovaltine and Bosco don’t identify their products as such, presumably because of the association with Dickensian misery. It’s also related to congee, a rice gruel eaten throughout Asia, which sounds nutritious and healing and not at all greasy or gristly.
So anyway, last Sunday night I made a pint of gruel, leaving out the lemon peel and sherry but adding plenty of sugar.
I served the gruel to two adults (including myself) and two kids. Nobody liked it, not even Kid B, an Ovaltine devotee.
Then Tom Tian, AB’10, came over to photograph it. This took a while, since watery, beige liquid is not that visually appealing, and since Tian might have been a bit duller than usual, having stayed out too late and had too much fun the night before.
When the photos were finally done, he decided to try it. He thought it tasted okay. He sat down at the kitchen table and slowly drank what was left of the batch.
Then, incredibly, just like Oliver Twist, he asked for more.
I forgot that what I was supposed to do at this point was smack him on the head, and instead I made him another pint. He sat back down and drank that too. “A pint of gruel for invalids”: it works.