Porridge, Pottage, Gruel

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PORRIDGE, POTTAGE, GRUEL. In Great Britain, porridge is synonymous with hot oatmeal gruel, a common breakfast food that also has become an icon of Scottish cookery or at least an icon of presumed Scottish origin. Food packaging and mass-market advertising have helped create this mythology, but in fact porridge is a universal dish that cuts across many cultures and geographic boundaries. Furthermore, oats are not a defining feature. They do not even play a role in the origin of the word "porridge."

The old children's rhyme moves closer to the real meaning of porridge: "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old." The key ingredient here is not oatmeal but peas, and not fresh peas but rather dried peas cracked into grits. The dried pea probably was not the only ingredient in peas porridge, because porridge, the original porridge, was a vegetable preparation, not a dish based on cereal grains (as in the case of gruel). The etymology of porridge has not been neatly worked out because the chain of evolution has a number of missing links, but this much is clear: porridge shares a common ancestry with words like "pottage," "porringer," "puree," and "potage," the latter the French word for soup. This word family also includes potager, the hearth where vegetable soups were boiled, and by extension the kitchen garden, in which those ingredients were grown.

The presumed underlying link for all of these concepts is the Latin word porrum or porrus, a leek. It appears in the Middle English word porree, a term used for leek porridge. It would seem, from etymological evidence, that originally porridge was a preparation made from leeks (or green onions resembling leeks) and secondarily from other ingredients in the kitchen garden. In home cookery this type of porridge may have been relatively coarse, with the ingredients chopped or pounded, then stewed until tender. In court cookery, where more attention was paid to delicate textures, leek porridge was most probably served as a smooth purée thickened with breadmany medieval recipe collections contain directions for making just this sort of dish. It finds its counterpart in the modern-day Spanish preparations known as porra, which are made by pounding the ingredients in a mortar until they form a thick pulp. They are eaten like gazpacho, scooped up with a piece of bread rather than with a spoon.

A parallel theme in all of these dishes is the fact that they are thickened in some fashion. The most elegant medieval preparations were thickened with white bread, yet presumably lower down on the economic ladder poorer cooks used whatever coarse thickeners were on hand. Dark bread was one alternative. Animal blood, especially the blood of fowl or hogs, was certainly employed during the butchering season. Combining pounded vegetables with meal or grits was also one common solution. In southern Europe barley, emmer wheat (farro in Italian), or millet appear to have been the thickeners of choice among the peasants. In northern Europe oats, barley, and rye were commonly employed, depending on what was most abundant in a particular region. The great variation in the use of thickeners may have given rise to the idea of national "styles" of porridge, when in fact national identities as understood in the twenty-first century are of recent origin. While the British may be inclined to call prepackaged oatmeal gruel a porridge, historical evidence suggests that if indeed it was once a porridge, it has been stripped of all key vegetable ingredients, most importantly the leeks.

William Woys Weaver