What do you reach for to revive your flagging spirits at the end of a gruelling day? Crisps and wine? Tea and toast? Jane Austen’s favourite valetudinarian, Mr Woodhouse, offers something rather different to his daughter in Emma to restore her spirits after a long, tiring journey. “You must go to bed early, my dear – and I recommend a little gruel to you before you go.”
Around 1815, the date of Emma’s publication, gruel was still enjoying a long-standing reputation as a health food. It was cheap, nutritious and easy on the stomach. Plain, with water, it was a panacea for coughs and colds – even consumption. It easily absorbed country remedies from the hedgerow or the garden; sage, spinach and nettle tops, or “scurvy-grass” (so called for its high vitamin C content). In grander households, its medical credentials might be enhanced with those Georgian favourites, rose water, wine and butter. One 17th-century cookbook suggested barley gruel was just the thing for the feverish aristocrat, with a few palatable additions such as currants, sorrel, rose water and musk and nudged towards jelly consistency with the addition of hartshorn.
At its simplest, gruel is very thin porridge. One recipe suggests 5 ounces oats for porridge and 2 ounces for gruel per pint of water. Before oats were routinely steamed, dehusked and rolled (our favourite kind for porridge), or “steel cut” into half or quarters (often now called “pinhead” or coarse oatmeal), untreated “groats” or whole oats were used; some recipes strained out the gritty fibre to leave a smooth semi-liquid which set as a jelly when cool. Groats had to be relatively fresh, though; the generous quantities of fat and fat-digesting enzymes made them more likely to go rancid.
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The word “gruel” came into Middle English from Old French, which suggests that it had a certain cachet. The word “gruelling”, however, hardly troubles the printer until the middle years of the 18th century, when it is used to describe exhausting conditions for dogs and horses in the hunt. Humans started experiencing “gruelling” conditions after gruel got a very public dressing down by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. The novel skewered the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which, as Dickens described it, “established the rule, 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… The relief was inseparable from the workhouse and the gruel; and that frightened people.”
In fact, the main constituent of the workhouse diet was then bread, but bread was “the staff of life”, the image of plenty. As the fashion for light, gluten-rich wheat bread – the whiter the better – swept the country, the oat and barley stews such as “pottage”, porridge or gruel, beloved of the north and Scotland, came to be seen as backwards. Initially it was not the dish itself that was the problem in the workhouse – after all, Dickens’s urchins are keen to have more of it – but the way it was prepared. As one man, remembering being forced into the workhouse around 1842 when his father lost his job, wrote, “simple meal and water, however small the amount of meal, honestly boiled, would be palatable”. While the main problem with porridge, as the schoolchild Jane Eyre discovers, is that it easily burnt, workhouse gruel was made with groats so badly stored they were often rancid or contaminated with dust and detritus such as animal droppings.
Gruel never recovered from this indignity, although science has enabled us to recognise that the near-magical health benefits of gruel truly belong to its constituent oats. Oats are now lauded for their lack of gluten and complex fibres; and their fat and protein are nutritious alike for humans and livestock, who eat at least a third of UK-grown oats. However, who now could agree with Mr Woodhouse that “A basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin…” was just the thing? Many of us, in fact. We consume it in huge, watery quantities – and call it oat milk.
Pen Vogler is the author of “Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain” (Atlantic)#
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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars