This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
For culinary medicine the Oat furnishes porridge, and gruel, as its most useful products. In its cultivated state this Avena sativa forms the principal grain food of Northern Europe. It needs less sunshine, and solar warmth to ripen its grain, than wheat does. But among the Romans of old it did not enjoy a good reputation. Pliny averred, "Primum omnis frumenti vitium avena est. Nevertheless, Oats are the most nutritious of all cereals; they are rich in proteid food, and in mineral salts, also they particularly abound with fat; the unfortunate drawback to their easy digestion is partly because of a special constituent to which the name "avenin" has been given, (and which disagrees with many persons), partly, too, because the husk is so firmly adherent to the grain that it cannot be separated from the kernel except with much difficulty; so that by the ordinary methods of grinding too great a proportion of cellulose is left in the meal, this occurring as small, sharp, irritating particles. If the person happens to have sluggish, insensible intestines, then the Oatmeal husk serves to stimulate them, and to obviate constipation; otherwise it teases, and makes the lining membrane sore; cracked-wheat porridge, or other forms of wheat for the purpose, will then suit better.
Whereas the straw, leaves, and chaff of the Oat plant contain alkaline sulphates, these are absent in the grain, where phosphates of high nutritive value abound instead. Crushed Oatmeal is employed for making gruel, which has been fully considered here on a former page. Scotchmen say that in England the porridge is never sufficiently boiled, or properly cooked. Stale Oatmeal porridge is more digestible than any recently made, because acid-forming bacteria are developed which help to soften the cellulose. Rolling the Oats is a modern method of crushing the grain, and by great pressure rupturing the cell-walls so as to break down the cellulose, and flatten out the grains; they then become more readily softened by cooking; indeed, if heat accompanies this rolling process, then the grains will be found at the same time partially cooked. This plan not only has the advantage of facilitating the subsequent cooking for the table, but it further alters the fat (which is so plentiful in Oats) in such a way that it is less liable to turn rancid, or to impair the flavour of the grain. By mixing fine Oatmeal with an equal quantity of wheaten flour, a fairly good loaf can be made.
But very little saccharine matter is contained ready formed in the Oat grain; and this cannot make light bread, being therefore preferred when baked into cakes; or its more popular form for eating is that of porridge, where the ground meal is thoroughly softened by boiling, and is improved in taste by adding salt, or sugar, with a little milk. "The halesome parritch, chief of Scotia's food," sang Burns with fervid eloquence. Scotch people revel in their parritch, and bannocks. "We defy your wheaten bread," says one of their favourite writers; "your home-made bread, your bakers' bread, your baps, rolls, scones, muffins, crumpets, and cookies, your Bath, buns, and your Sally lunns, your tea cakes, and slim cakes, your saffron cakes, and girdle cakes, your shortbread, and sinning hinnies; we swear by the Oat cake, and the Parritch, the bannock, and the brose".
Scotch beef brose is concocted by boiling Oatmeal in meat-liquor, and kail brose by cooking Oatmeal in cabbage-water. In the Border-forays of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries all the provision carried by the Scotch warriors was simply a bag of Oatmeal.
"My blessing on the happy man Who first rode in his carriage; And double blessing on the man Who first invented parritch.
I'd build him up a monument,
As high as any steeple, His praise in future should be sung,
By all good honest people.
Look round, and tell me where's the land,
That flourishes sae weel As where they duly fill the mouth,
With Scotia's fragrant meal!
Whatever shape it may assume,
In scone, or havercake, Or haggis, it is welcome, aye,
For dear auld Scotland's sake.
It nerves the heart, it nerves the arm,
For deeds of noble darin'; When Boney met the kilted lads,
'Twas then he got his farin'".
In the social life of Queen Anne's time, porridge was the Charity meat, which liberally-disposed persons sent for distribution on each Thursday, "when earthen dishes, porringers, pans, wooden spoons, and cabbage nets were stirring about against dinner-time." The porringer, or porridge dish, was a small vessel deeper than a plate, or a saucer, usually having upright sides, and a nearly flat bottom, also one or two ears. A familiar nursery rhyme relates that: -
"There was an old Bishop of Norwich Who always ate beans with his porridge".
By the Danes "Fruit Porridge" is made: "Take one pound of red currants, and one pound of raspberries, or two pounds of the jam; put these into a saucepan, with one quart of water, and boil for one quarter of an hour. Strain through a sieve, and return into the saucepan, with a little lemon-peel, half a vanilla-pod, and a few shredded almonds, and sugar to taste. Add eight ounces of fine sago which has been well soaked in cold water, and stir all together over the fire until the sago is dissolved. Pour into a wetted mould, or glass dish, and serve with cream".
Oat-cake (cooked without butter in it) contains rather more than twice as much building material for the bodily repair as an equal quantity of wheaten bread, and has almost twice as great a fuel value. But the Oatmeal for cooking requires to be very thoroughly boiled, so as to sufficiently soften the cellulose. "Brose," which is prepared by merely stirring Oatmeal into boiling water, is not a proper food for delicate stomachs. The "Stir-about" of former English times was Oatmeal, and dripping, or bacon fat, mixed together, and stirred about in a frying-pan. With ourselves Oatmeal is frequently heating, and apt to provoke skin eruptions by its "avenin" principle, which is found not seldom to similarly affect horses when liberally supplied with Oats. Whereas porridge, though carefully prepared, disagrees with the digestion pretty often, yet it can be modified to prevent this: "Make a porridge of Oatmeal in the usual manner, but particularly thick, indeed, a pudding rather than a porridge; then, while it is still hot (at 150° Fahrenheit, or thereabout) in the saucepan, add some dry malt-flour (equal to from an eighth part to a quarter of the Oatmeal used); stir this dry flour into it, when a curious transformation will occur; the dry flour, instead of thickening the mixture, then acts like added water, and converts the pudding-mess into a thin porridge, much to the cook's astonishment".