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Alimentary, My Dear

Feeling Their Oats — Readers' Ruminations on Oatmeal

By Tamia Nelson Dr. Johnson, I Presume?

April 15, 2014

Back in January, I wrote a column describing my search for an inexpensive instant oatmeal that retained some of the flavor and texture of the real thing, a search that culminated in my making my own. The experiment — for that's what it was — proved a success, and it was successful in more ways than one. Not only did my homemade instant oatmeal live up to expectations, but the column generated an outpouring of reader mail. Oatmeal, it seems, is a hot topic, and one which generates strong feelings among paddlers.

That being the case, I figured I'd better pass along what I'd learned from the ensuing correspondence, and with the generous consent of the readers who wrote around my article, that's exactly what I'm going to do. I'll begin with a few words concerning …

Dr. Johnson on Oatmeal

That's Samuel ("Dictionary") Johnson, the 18th‑century controversialist whose Dictionary of the English Language was the first English dictionary worthy of the name. And when it came to defining "oats," Dr. Johnson outdid himself, turning the definition into an infamously disparaging comment about the Scots, for whom he seems to have felt a certain enmity. Reader Blair Bigelow had something to say about that. He began by quoting the definition ("A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people") and then went on to add:

James Boswell, Johnson's companion and later his biographer, claims that when Johnson told or read [this definition] to him, he replied, "Aye, and that's why England has such fine horses, and Scotland such fine people." Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is one of the best and most readable of biographies in English, a real classic and a real entertainment.

I have some Scots ancestry on both sides of my family, and my breakfast is oatmeal about five days a week.

As it happens, I also breakfast on oatmeal more often than not, and while most of my roots are buried deep in the soil of Carpathia, I've always felt a certain fondness for the Scots. Some of Farwell's ancestors first saw the light of day north of Tweed Water. Maybe that has something to do with it. In any event, I can't fault Boswell's spirited retort. He was a Scot by birth — and proud to be one.

But our subject is oatmeal, not literature. Which brings me to Wilma MacDonald's observations on …

The Value of Cold Storage

It's a technique that will be of interest to any paddler who's ever had to start her day before the sun cleared the horizon.

As someone who loves oats in any form, I was interested in your discovery of how to make homemade instant oats for camping trips. It's so satisfying to be self-sufficient in basic ways like this. Thanks for sharing the idea.

Here is something I tried as an experiment a few years ago to save time on busy mornings and still have homemade porridge. I made a large batch during my days off, and stored the leftovers in a glass dish with a snap-on lid in the fridge. To my surprise, the cold porridge, when reheated in a microwave, tasted just like the first day it was prepared, and remained good up to Day Five. I buy the old-fashioned large (slow-cooking) rolled oats at the bulk store. Porridge made with other mixed grains reheats well, too.

Yes, I know what you're thinking: Microwaves are rarely found in riverside camps. But Wilma's method for making breakfast ahead of time could easily be adapted to campfire cookery, though in the absence of a refrigerator — another appliance seldom seen on the riverbank — I don't think I'd try stretching the porridge beyond the second day. Still, there are plenty of mornings when it would be nice not to have to cook breakfast from scratch. And speaking of saving time and trouble…

There's more to oats than porridge. For instance, how about …

Oatmeal Muffins?

Art Denney, whose helpful hints have frequently enlivened these (virtual) pages, recommends them, and paddlers looking for a make‑ahead breakfast that's a bit out of the ordinary would do well to consider his suggestion. He's found a way to make an already good idea even better, too:

I make oatmeal muffins with steel-cut oats. By grinding or chopping half of the amount of oats [called for in the recipe, and then mixing it together with the other half], the muffins came out a better consistency than what I had been getting.

I won't need much persuading. Steel‑cut oats have a toothsome texture and a pleasant flavor that will beguile paddlers who've always used rolled oats.

Of course, muffins aren't the only make‑ahead, bake‑ahead oatmeal treat. There are also …

Oatmeal Cookies

And if you don't think cookies can make a satisfying breakfast, think again. Cal Lamoreaux will open your eyes to a new world of possibilities:

I have quick oatmeal with nuts and raisins every day for breakfast at home. In camp, I eschew cooking or dishwashing in the morning. Homemade trail mix, granola, or oatmeal cookies, plus fruit gets me going. No cooking desired for either breakfast or lunch.

Cal has a point. If I didn't rely on hot coffee to get my engine turning over in the morning, I doubt I'd bother to fire up my stove from dawn to dusk. And in the spirit of enquiry, I've decided to meet Cal halfway. While I'll continue to heat water for coffee, I'm going to try breakfasting on Hundred‑Mile Plus Bars, at least when time presses. Beating the bonk begins with the first meal of the day, after all.

Let's return to Dr. Johnson for a minute. Notwithstanding the good lexicographer's mordant wit, oatmeal has many virtues as table fare, some of which are only now being recognized. For example, there's an intriguing possibility that oatmeal may be …

Just What Your Heart Desires

That won't come as news to Dallen Bounds, however. Here's what he has to say:

After my brother-in-law told me that his cholesterol level was on a steady decline because he was eating oatmeal for breakfast, I decided to follow his lead. I liked the instant flavored packets, but switched to the regular stuff to eliminate the sugar that was added to the packets. Now I have even tweaked the instructions on the box to suit my lifestyle.

Put one-half cup of regular oatmeal in a mug which has a lid that seals tight. Add one cup of boiling water, some craisins and sliced almonds, then snap on the lid. In 15 minutes I remove the lid and add either one tablespoon of real maple syrup (which is good for you) or agave nectar, then stir. The oatmeal is now done cooking and ready to eat. We buy flavored coffee creamers from Cash and Carry (a restaurant supply store), and I like to add one to the cereal. Right now my favorite is Cinnamon Vanilla Creme.

This works out to be simple and almost as fast as the instant. I never have to sit down and wait for it. There is always something else to do to use the time, like using another 10 ounces of boiling water to make a mug of hot chocolate.

Good and good for you… Could you ask for more from any food? I don't think so. And yes, there is support in the medical literature for the idea that consumption of oatmeal and other grains high in soluble fiber really does lower "bad" cholesterol, though the magnitude of the effect would seem to be relatively modest. But every little bit helps, eh?

OK. Now I'd like to return to the subject that drove me to write my earlier oatmeal article:

Finding a Cheap Retail Source of Bulk Instant Oatmeal

To make a long story short, I couldn't. But Anna Mallin has succeeded where I failed.

I use Quick Rolled Oats purchased in bulk at Bulk Barn [a Canada-wide retail bulk foods supplier]. I assume that the US has similar bulk food stores.

For breakfast at home, I put three-quarters of a cup of Quick Oats into a large bowl, add a pinch of salt, a handful of dried cranberries (or raisins), a teaspoon (or two) of brown sugar, and then cover the oatmeal mix with boiling water, wait a couple of minutes, and devour.

For camping, I put one cup of oats plus the other ingredients into a ziplock sandwich bag. (Then I put several "breakfast bags" into a larger ziplock bag for double security.) On trips, I dump the contents of the sandwich bag into a collapsible Fairshare mug, add boiling water from a Jetboil stove (which also produces quick boiling water for coffee), let the concoction stand for a couple of minutes, and gobble down.

I have discovered that this concoction also works with cold water (when, alas, my stove failed).

Since Bulk Barn has resisted the temptation to venture into New York's Borderlands, I've been unable to try Anna's suggestions myself, but I'd guess that Bulk Barn's Quick Rolled Oats are similar to the quick‑cooking oats on the shelves of the local HyperMart. And if so, I, too, have succeeded in adapting them for quick camp breakfasts. But I now prefer to go right to the source and make my homemade instant from "original" slow‑cooking rolled oats. They're cheaper than quick‑cooking oats, easier to find in bulk (at least in northern New York), and — to my mind, at any rate — better tasting. That being said, I'm open to new ideas, and the next time my travels take me north of the border, I'm going to give Bulk Barn's Quick Oats a try.

And speaking of giving things a try, Jackie Colwell has a suggestion that widens our frame of reference. She's been thinking outside the box, so to speak, and she poses this question:

Why Not Try Couscous, Instead?

It's quicker than oatmeal and easier to prepare. Here's how Jackie does it:

An even simpler way to get an instant breakfast is to use couscous. Tony's Breakfast Couscous is not my recipe, but it will give you the idea. You can use any combination of dried fruit (chopped apricot, cherries, prunes, etc.) and any chopped nuts you like. You can mix larger quantities in a bowl (minus the water), then put individual servings in small ziplock bags, or just put the whole thing in a ziplock or plastic jar and take it with you. In camp, boil your water, add to the mix in your bowl, and heaven awaits. When I was eating this and my friends were eating plain oatmeal, they were quite jealous!

An extra note, as well: I always take a one-quart thermos on kayak camping trips. I can boil water in my coffee pot (which houses my camp stove while in the boat). Whatever hot water I don't use for cereal and coffee goes into the thermos for the next cup of coffee, saving fuel. It can also be used later to mix up instant soups for lunch. It rides quite nicely behind my seat or even between my feet.

I also use the thermos to hold hot water to go into the bathroom facility (or behind a large bush) and pour it out onto a small towel (Handi Wipe), adding soap to the towel for a nice wash. I then use a separate towel to add more water and rinse.

Couscous. Coffee. And hot water for washing. It looks like Jackie's scored a hat trick here. She's really smoothing it in style. But the humble thermos has even more tricks up its stainless steel sleeve. Just spoon regular ("slow‑cook") oatmeal into a widemouth thermos at bedtime, add boiling water and screw on the cap. Your breakfast oatmeal will then be ready to eat the minute you wake up. You only have to undo the thermos's cap.

Of course, this reminds me that my subject today is oatmeal, not couscous. So I'm going to give Melanie Jack the last word. She describes what has to be …

The Easiest Oatmeal Breakfast of All

I don't like to wait for oatmeal to cook and then clean the sticky pan, so here's my heart-healthy rapid oatmeal recipe:

  • ½ cup uncooked slow-cooking oatmeal
  • Handful of prechopped almonds, walnuts, and seeds
  • Cut-up apple, blueberries, or other fruit
  • Milk, yogurt, or Greek yogurt

Now EAT IT RAW. It's really pretty good this way. The raw oatmeal has a sweet taste. It takes only one minute to make and seconds to wash up afterward. If you eat it with Greek yogurt you will have plenty of protein to balance the carbohydrates.

I'm curious to know whether raw and unsoaked oatmeal has the same beneficial health properties as soaked and cooked, in case any of your readers know the answer.

I'm impressed. Melanie has wielded Ockham's razor with great skill. Breakfast doesn't get much simpler than this. As to the comparative health benefits of cooked and uncooked oatmeal, however, I've found just one small study bearing on the question. And though that study reported finding no significant difference between subjects eating raw rolled oats and those eating porridge, the researchers looked only at blood glucose levels and insulin response, not at lipid values (the source of the "heart healthy" claims made for oatmeal). If any reader knows of a study I've missed, therefore, I hope she (or he) will drop me a line. I'll make sure Melanie gets the word.

Come and Get It!

Who would have imagined that oatmeal was a hot topic among paddlers? I certainly wouldn't have. But when my column on homemade instant oatmeal resulted in a healthy serving of reader mail, I figured I ought to pass on what I'd learned from your letters. And that's just what I've done. If you've been feeling your oats lately, you now know why.


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