PORRIDGE. Porridge is generally defined as a dish made by stirring oatmeal or rolled oats into boiling water and simmering the mixture gently until it is cooked. It is usually eaten hot; often, though not invariably, for breakfast. Meal or flour from other cereals may be used, in which case the dish is so designated; the cooking liquid may be water or milk or a mixture of both.
Porridge is considered an essentially Scottish foodstuff—it was hailed by Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, as 'The halesome parritch, chief o' Scotia's food'—even though oats are grown in many regions of the world. The words "porridge," "parritch," and variants are allied to the word "pottage," indicating the practice of cooking ingredients together in a pot and thickening it with cereals, though "pottage" itself came to mean soup or broth. They may also be linked to porray, which is derived from porrum, the Latin word for leek—an age-old pottage vegetable. The Scottish purry was a mixture of oatmeal and kail.
Cooking and Serving
Traditions surround the making and eating of porridge. Stirring should always be done clockwise (for luck) with a spirtle or theevil, a wooden stick tapering to a rounded point, for stirring, and a carved head. In Scots, porridge was always referred to in the plural and was customarily eaten while standing, but the reasons for this latter custom are obscure. Some aver it was due to the proverb: "A staunin' sack fills the fu'est" (A standing sack fills the fullest), while others consider folk ate standing up lest an enemy catch them unawares.
Once cooked, the porridge was ladled into porringers (bowls) with a separate bowl of milk, buttermilk, or thin cream close by. Each spoonful of porridge was dipped into the cold liquid and then eaten. Some sprinkled sugar over the porridge, and others preferred honey, treacle or syrup, or a knob of butter—the men might replace the milk with ale or small beer. Porridge was sometimes poured into a drawer in the kitchen dresser to be sliced when cold, either for eating out in the fields or for reheating in the evening.
The basic mixture allowed for numerous permutations, all with their own nomenclature according to locality. Brose was made by pouring boiling water over oatmeal, butter, and salt: with meat stock it became fat brose, while the addition of a green vegetable gave kail brose. Hasty Pudding was a form of porridge enriched and sweetened. Gruel was made by boiling the liquid that oats had soaked in, flavoring it with assorted ingredients and allowing it to cool to a jellylike substance. To make sowans, oat husks were soaked until sour, at which point the mixture was sieved and the husks thrown out. The liquid was a pleasant drink and the starchy sediment underneath was boiled and eaten either hot or cold, with milk, cream, or beer again served separately.
Oatmeal augmented every type of dish and some drinks, too, while assorted oatcakes and bannocks baked on a girdle (a flat iron plate hanging over the fire) took the place of yeasted bread.
Porridge is highly nutritious because oatmeal contains protein, carbohydrate, fats, and soluble fiber, all the B vitamins, vitamin E, calcium, and iron. The lack of vitamins A, C, and D is redressed when it is combined with milk or vegetables. Research has revealed that porridge might aid in the prevention of coronary heart disease as well as in the treatment of hypertension and certain diabetic conditions.
A Scottish Staple
The consumption of porridge, together with other oatbased products, is considered an essential benchmark of Scottish nationality. In the geographical and climatic conditions of Scotland, both oats and barley provided a more reliable harvest than did wheat, but oats did not predominate until the eighteenth century. Thereafter, they played an increasing role in the diet, particularly in rural areas where oatmeal often formed the basis of every meal: "Oatmeal, with milk, which they cook in different ways, is their constant food, three times a day, throughout the year, Sunday and holidays included," observed J. Donaldson in 1794 regarding the farm laborers in the Carse of Gowie, a fertile area along the River Tay's north bank. Places in England and Wales with similar conditions saw a parallel dependence on oatmeal. Emigrants from the United Kingdom, but most especially the Scots, took their traditional habits with them, including their food preferences, and oatmeal was subsequently exported to many far-flung corners of the globe.
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Donaldson, Gordon. The Scots Overseas. London: Hale, 1966.
Donaldson, James. General View of the Agriculture of the Carse of Gowrie in the County of Perth. London: Macrae, 1794.
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Lythe, S. G. E., and J. Bute. An Economic History of Scotland, 1100–1939. Glasgow and London: Blackie, 1975.
Mason, Laura, and Catherine Brown. Traditional Foods of Britain: An Inventory. Totnes, U.K.: Prospect, 1999.
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Una A. Robertson
Making Porridge by the Traditional Scottish Method
For each person allow about a handful of oatmeal to half an (imperial) pint of water and a small teaspoonful of salt. Bring the water to the boil and add the oatmeal in a slow but steady stream, stirring briskly. Once it has returned to the boil simmer gently until cooked, about 20 to 25 minutes. Add the salt near the end of the cooking time.
Quantities are necessarily inexact as meals vary, as do the tastes of those eating the end product. Rolled oats require less cooking, so follow the manufacturer's instructions; the microwave, too, shortens the cooking time.
In 1877 the Quaker Oats Company of the United States developed rolled oats or oatflakes by steaming and rolling the coarsest grade of oatmeal—the so-called pinhead oatmeal, which is the whole grain halved. This innovation simplified the preparation of porridge and all oat-based dishes.
The muesli of today, regarded as a health food, is generally formulated with oats as its principal ingredient, with the addition of other cereal flakes, dried fruits, and nuts. It requires no cooking and has grown more sophisticated over time, but it is still recognizably a derivative of the Scottish porridge.
por·ridge / ˈpôrij/ • n. a dish consisting of oatmeal or another meal or cereal boiled in water or milk. DERIVATIVES: por·ridg·y adj.
Porridge ★★ Doing Time 1991
A British comedy inspired by the popular BBC situation comedy of the title, about a habitual criminal and convict who makes the most of his time in prison. 105m/C VHS, DVD . GB Ronnie Barker, Fulton Mackay, Peter Vaughan, Julian Holloway, Geoffrey Bayldon; D: Dick Clement.