Oatmeal was the most sincere religion the farmhouse practiced

Justin Isherwood
Oatmeal was our farmhouse habit, if more truthfully it was a religion.

Oats have been said to be a Scots crop. Oatmeal was our farmhouse habit, if more truthfully it was a religion. Our father consumed oatmeal every morning, winter and summer. He had his eggs and his bacon, his fried potatoes, if later there were Wheaties. All and always preceded by a bowl of oatmeal. 

Our dad liked Wheaties. Only Wheaties, never Corn Flakes, Wheat Chex or Rice Krispies. His Wheaties was always preceded by a bowl of oatmeal. Indulgent was his act of breakfast, our father, a dairy man who had been at chores since 4 a.m., the day that would see another twelve hours.

Oatmeal or porridge as I experienced, was a dubious business. The farmhouse stove was haunted by an ever-present sentinel of the oatmeal pot on the back burner. The pot as I remember was never washed, just more water added and the oatmeal pot got left on the back burner to mellow or meditate as it chose, that on the morrow a couple hands of hammered oats thrown in to provide its blessing for another day. 

The resulting porridge was an amorphous slightly jelled mass, about the color of deceased brains. Rendered remarkably edible by a heaping tablespoon of brown sugar.

In our mother’s native herbal, oats and oatmeal was the quintessential cure-all, whether flu, fever, upset stomach, intestinal cramps, headache, hangover, algebra, lost love, hangnail, stubbed toe … all cured or at least paved over by oatmeal. One dose per day.  Oatmeal was the most sincere religion the farmhouse practiced and I remain grateful.

When my mother’s sons got to the serious stage of predatory dating such that the females in question were actually sleeping over at the farmhouse, the oatmeal ritual was their cruel initiation rite. 

The victims were presented at the breakfast table with a first course of what appeared to be a yet-steaming mass of brains slightly quivering in an ample breakfast bowl.  Whether these virgin recruits immediately got sick to their stomach or put their heads down and by force of will dominated the fairer judgment of their stomachs decided the fate of our relationship.

Oatmeal or porridge as Justin Isherwood experienced as a boy, was a dubious business, especially since the ever-present pot sat on the stove until the resulting porridge appeared as an amorphous slightly jelled mass that was remarkably rendered edible thanks to a tablespoon of brown sugar.

Several candidates were homeward bound soon after, if a few broke from the table at impressive velocity never to be seen again. Some were more considerate, but they too drifted off to the ethers or wherever former girlfriends go.

It was as a matter of family honor to marry the ones that pinched their knees together and consumed that whole bowl of slightly ambulatory gray matter. They as surely impregnated by the holy ghost of that farm table and its oats, as by more biologically enjoyable habit of female capture. 

If a particular she-male was sufficiently interesting, she was forewarned to use lots of milk and two tablespoons of brown sugar, by which you can readily eat dirt, or even the Buena Vista Marsh’s Roscommon muck named after the county in Ireland.

In my family, oatmeal ranked as a cherished means of home defense. Oatmeal was our Excalibur. That oatmeal pot guarded our well-being following the ancient custom of Scotland and the horse, that good draft animals deserve a daily portion of oats. In this case we were the beasts in question. The haying, the potato harvest, the silo-filling, that googolplex of chores all attached to some kind of handle. 

When our mother died and her housewares were divided among her clutch, a hard and estranging argument ensued between the siblings. It wasn’t over the substantial cash money found in the cupboard, nor the three generations of silverware, not the yellow teapot that never did anything useful but sit on the radio shelf. If one particular quilt did cause a fist fight. 

The hardest decision was over who got to keep that oatmeal pot that stood sentry on the back burner of our mom’s kitchen range.  A pot never washed, just refreshed with a double handful of oats from the stern round tub.

The Quaker Oats people have changed the countenance of their man to a more gentle demeanor, thinking the stern-look of the old brand image might scare people off.  To suspect there is no longer the same imperative to nourish draft animals.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.