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.
In primitive Britain the cereal, and leguminous foods were originally eaten unshelled, and uncooked, as testified by the extremely ground-down state of our early ancestors' teeth, and those of the pre-Saxon inhabitants. But meanwhile in more civilized Gaul these foods were advanced to the state of being pounded by stones, and in mortars, so as to make a sort of mass with water, or milk, - the primitive Gruel. "Rome," said Cato of Utica, "was raised upon Gruel." Later on in mid-English times Gruel was groat ale, or oatmeal soup, made with malt liquor instead of water, and then rendered in base Latin gruellum, from grutellum, a diminutive of grutum, meal; so oatmeal, grits, groats. Grout, similarly, was a quondam Danish dish, and it is still claimed as an honour by a certain old Danish family to carry a platter thereof at a Royal Coronation:-
"King Hardyknute, midst Danes, and Saxons stout, Caroused on nut-brown ale, and dined on grout, Which dish its pristine honour still retains, And when each prince is crowned in splendour reigns".
-Art of Cookery (1708).
Again, the True Gentlewoman's Delight (1653) taught how "to make Grout": "Take some wheat, and beanes, and when you have made it into malt, then tittle it; then take some water, or some small wort, and heat it scalding hot, and put it into a pail; then stir in the malt; then take a piece of sower leaven; then stir it about, and cover it, and let it stand till it will cream, then put in some orange pills (peels?), then put it over the fire, and boil it, keeping it stirring till all the white be gone." Nowadays Gruel is an invalid preparation for weakly persons of disabled digestion, or to obviate a recent cold, and promote free action of the skin, or for infants. It is made by boiling meal, or groats, or other farinaceous substance, in water. If nicely sweetened with treacle, and taken immediately before going to bed, Gruel is an admirable little repast for anyone troubled with a cold in the chest, or head. Or, it may be seasoned with salt, pepper, spices, herbs, celery seed, shalots, or onions.
A good Gruel for bowel complaints is to be made with a spoonful of ground rice mixed with a pint of milk, and boiled, some cinnamon being added, and perhaps Port wine, or Brandy. "Plain Gruel," quoth Dr. Kitchener, "is the most comforting soother of an irritable stomach we know of." "Water Gruel is the king of spoon-meats, the queen of soups, and gratifies nature beyond all others. This essence of oatmeal makes a noble, and exhilarating meal." Sir Kenelm Digby wrote in his Closet opened (1645) about "Water-gruel"; "This should be boiled till it rises in great ebullition, in great galloping waters; when the upper surface hath no gross visible oatmeal in it, this should be then skimmed off, and it will be found much better than the part which remaineth below of the oatmeal. Yet even that will make good Water-gruel for the servants." Groats is the grain of oats freed from its husk, and when crushed forms "Embden Groats," as used for making gruel. Likewise barley, arrowroot, and flour, or biscuit, will serve for preparing this food. Any Gruel should be drunk slowly, so that the starch may become mixed with saliva, and thus partially digested before being swallowed.
For "a pleasant Gruel," "take a small cupful of good wheaten bran, and mix this with a little cold water; then stir in two quarts of boiling water into which a bruised stick of cinnamon has been put; let it boil for half an hour till sufficiently thick; strain, and when the Gruel is to be served add a teaspoonful of lemon, or orange juice, and as much sugar as is liked." But in the making of Gruel sugar is mentioned with hesitation, for "a sweet Gruel is an abomination," says the Century Invalid Cookery Book. And yet a Gruel containing just a little sugar has a pleasanter flavour than one without any. It should be noted that the starch of such grain as is used in preparing Gruel is not readily digested unless it be well cooked. When dear old Mr. Woodhouse, the kindly valetudinarian paterfamilias, in Jane Austen's Emma, was visited by his married daughter, and her husband, he bade her "go to bed early, as she must be tired; and," said he, "I recommend to you a little Gruel before you go; you and I will have a nice basin of Gruel together.
My dear Emma" (the elder daughter), "suppose we all have a little Gruel together! "
"Thin Gruel," writes Austin Dobson in a certain Preface, "once moved a noble Earl to poetry for a contemporary keepsake." Derisively in some of the casual wards of the London workhouses the Gruel given to able-bodied paupers passes under the name of "Skilly," a word perhaps first derived from the skillet (Latin, Scutetta, a small dish, or plate), which vessel was formerly used in heating a drink over the fire. From the same word Scutetta our scullery, or dishery, is obtained; hence also a scullion, a dish-washer. In Lear's Book of Nonsense, so beloved by children, they gain acquaintance with an odd dish of the food under notice:-
"There was an old person of Ewell Who chiefly subsisted on gruel. But to make it more nice he inserted some mice, Which refreshed that old person of Ewell".
Oatmeal Gruel may be made by boiling from one to two ounces of the meal with three pints of water, down to two pints, then straining the decoction, and pouring off the thinner liquid when cool. Its flavour can be improved by adding split raisins towards the end of boiling, or sugar, and nutmeg (grated). To "get one's gruel" is a slang term for being severely punished, or disabled, or slain, perhaps deservedly. "He shall have his gruel, said one." (Guy Mannering, Cap. xxvii).