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Mr. Woodhouse’s Thin Gruel

The gruel came and supplied a great deal to be said — much praise and many comments — undoubting decision of its wholesomeness for every constitution, and pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerable; — but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin.

Of all Jane Austen’s hypochrondriacs, perhaps her most endearing is Mr. Woodhouse. Afraid of germs, draughts, too rich food and all manner of nervous complaints brought on by change, he forces himself, and often those around him, to live on a diet of plain foods:

“My poor dear Isabella,” said he, fondly taking her hand, and interrupting, for a few moments, her busy labours for some one of her five children — “How long it is, how terribly long since you were here! And how tired you must be after your journey! You must go to bed early, my dear — and I recommend a little gruel to you before you go. — You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.”

Emma could not suppose any such thing, knowing as she did, that both the Mr Knightleys were as unpersuadable on that article as herself; — and two basins only were ordered.

Gruel was, by nature, a dish reserved for the very poor, who could afford nothing else, and invalids, who could tolerate nothing else. A type of thin porridge, it is made of oats stewed with either milk or water, and is served with salt or sugar and milk.

The first evidence for dishes resembling porridge is prehistoric. Neolithic farmers cultivated oats along with other crops. Various types of grains and grain meals could be stewed in water to form a thick porridge-like dish. Anglo Saxon sources describe “briw” or “brewit” made from rye meal, barley meal or oats served plain or with vegetables in. There are also references to some types of porridges being fermented.

Porridges and gruels were an easy way to cook grains. The grain only had to be cracked, not completely ground into flour. It could be cooked very simply in a pot at the edge of a fire. Bread required an oven to cook in. It formed a basis for many dishes, both sweet and savoury. It was served with meat, stock or fat, as well as with vegetables, fruits, honey or spices. It could be allowed to cool and set in a “porridge drawer”, and could then be sliced to be eaten cold or even fried.

Eighteenth Century cookbooks such as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, 1747, give recipes for “Water Gruel” made of oatmeal and water, and flavoured with butter and pepper. It might be served with wine sauce, sherry and dried fruits by rich people, whereas the poor ate the dish on its own. It could be served with any meal at any time of the day. Sugar only became widely available in Britain in the Eighteenth Century, so it was probably not used on porridge before then.

Oliver Twist As a inexpensive dish, Gruel or Porridge became the meal of choice served at workhouses around the nation in the early to mid 1800’s. In 1837, Charles Dickens sarcastically wrote “…that all poor people should have the alternative of being starved by a gradual process in the [work] house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water, and with a corn-factory (grain processor) to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal, and issued three meals of thin gruel a day….”* Who can forget the image of young Oliver Twist asking, “Please sir, may I have some more?”

This is not to say that all porridges were reserved for the indigent. Oats were a kitchen staple at the time for every household and many richer versions found their way on the tables of the wealthy as well as the working class.These dishes included plumb porridge or barley gruel, made from barley and water, with dried fruit added. Burstin was made by roasting hulled barley grains and then grinding them, it could then be served with milk Frumenty was hulled wheat cooked with milk, cream and eggs and flavoured with spices. SUrely Mr. Woodhouse would have been shocked at such profligacy!

To Make Water-Gruel
You must take a pint of water and a large spoonful of oatmeal; then stir it together and let it boil up three or four times, stirring it often; do not let it boil over; then strain it through a sieve, salt it to your palate, put in a good piece of fresh butter, brew it with a spoon til the butter is all melted, then it will be fine and smooth, and very good: som love a little pepper in it.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1796

Recipe for Oatmeal Gruel
1/3 cup rolled oats
1 pint water
1 pint or more hot milk
1¼ teaspoons salt

Add the salt to the water, and bring to a boil in the inner cup of a double boiler. Stir in the rolled oats. Boil over the fire two or three minutes, then set the inner cup in the outer cup of the double boiler which contains boiling water, and continue the cooking for three hours or longer. Then rub the oatmeal through a strainer. Add hot milk to make of the proper consistency for gruel.

Barley gruel, cornmeal gruel, or rice gruel may be made by the same recipe, using one-third cup pearl barley, one-fourth cup cornmeal, or one-fourth cup rice, instead of the rolled oats. And in making cornmeal or rice gruel one hour’s cooking of the cereal is sufficient. It may be necessary to cook the barley four or five hours.

It may sometimes be desirable to make the gruel entirely of water.

Portions of this article are quoted from Nicky Saunder’s article, “The History of Cooking: Porridge”. Many thanks to Lothene: Experimental Archeology for their kind permission to reprint.

*Oliver Twist, Chapter 2

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One thought on “Mr. Woodhouse’s Thin Gruel

  1. […] this recipe I wanted to show you an alternative that would have been much more common among the wealthy middle classes back in the day. It has basically all the flavors a rich dude (or dudette, of course) would want […]

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