When the weather turned cold, the oatmeal started to bubble

January 25, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

THE SIGHT OF THE oatmeal bubbling away on the kitchen stove was reassuring on those cold mornings. Whenever the mercury dropped below 50 degrees, this steaming, stick-to-your-ribs breakfast was required eating for all young scholars going off to school.

My grandmother Lily Rose and her sister, great Aunt Cora, believed that few foods were as essential to youthful stomachs as cooked oats doused with milk, butter and sugar. They turned up their noses at Kix, Cheerios, Rice Krispies and all their Battle Creek offspring. They believed that mass-marketed, sugar-infused cereals were no better than the devious advertising campaigns that so endeared them to young appetites.

There was nothing flashy about the grayish puddle in the dented pot on the stove that greeted me most mornings in our sunny kitchen with the big frost-etched windows.

One glance at the oatmeal pot and I knew its chef. Aunt Cora was the preferred oatmeal cook. Hers was smooth, with fewer lumps. Grandmother Lily Rose made her oatmeal with more globs and oat-flake masses. We didn't dare comment upon those differences, though.

The oats were not the instant, quick-cook variety. I think Aunt Cora put the oats on the rear gas burner before she left for morning Mass. On her return, when she quickly changed from her church shoes into comfortable, worn-down kitchen flats, she had only to reheat the porridge -- as she sometimes called it when doing a mock Charles Dickens routine -- when we started assembling the menu for the wintertime breakfast table.

"Eat your oats. They're good for you," Cora chirped in an optimistic tone worthy of a radio commercial. Then she gave a little lecture on the well-known Quaker gentleman on the cardboard canister. She instructed us about the Quakers she had known in Harford County at the old Fallston meeting house, which was next-door to the family summer place. This rambling pre-school lesson contained at least one use of the words "thee" and "thou" as she went on about the Quakers and the cereal named after them.

If you were the last one to get oatmeal, you might have gotten the scrapings from the bottom of the pot, a gelatinous glob that was usually on the dry side, and occasionally burned. It was best to add more milk.

By no means did every member of our household of 12 break into a broad smile at the sight of the oatmeal pot. It was considered mostly a child's food -- healthful, nutritious and sufficient to get you through a school morning. (Oatmeal was generally only served Monday through Saturday. Our sabbath brought buckwheat cakes, but that's another sermon.)

I often marveled at how the keepers of that kitchen accommodated the specific food manias of each household member -- I think we had 12 different settings on the toaster for darkness-lightness demands on bread. And then there was the oleo vs. butter factions, and the debate about strawberry or pineapple preserves -- or someone's preference for apple butter.

My mother was never at her best before 10 a.m. She often made a speech about how she could not face oatmeal. She preferred its grainy cousin, Cream of Wheat, served with a tidal wave of butterfat-heavy cream.

My sister Ellen requested toast dusted with cinnamon and sugar.

My father liked the prepared cereals that came in boxes.

Dorothy Croswell, a neighbor who lived next door, often dropped by in the morning. She hated oatmeal, but put down cup after cup of Eight O'Clock coffee with my grandmother, who always bustled around the kitchen early in the morning.

Aunt Cora sung the praises of fresh-squeezed orange juice, preferably made from temple oranges.

As for the oatmeal, the best way to eat it was with a side order of fried scrapple.

My grandfather, Pop Monaghan, wisely timed his kitchen arrival well after the school buses and car pools departed the Guilford Avenue house. He dined on well-toasted bread, stewed prunes or baked apples before reading the morning paper and lecturing on the stupidity of our local elected officials.

Grandmother Lily Rose was an advocate of furious pre-dawn kitchen work. She often made a dessert, prepared soup, padded oysters or pealed potatoes at the hour when most people were still in the land of dreams.

It was not unusual for me to get dressed for school, come downstairs and see the kitchen counter set out with 12 bowls ready for rice pudding, brandied peaches, pineapple upside-down cake or gingerbread to be served at evening supper with lemon sauce.

Lily Rose accomplished all this before a distant steam whistle sounded somewhere along the harbor at 6: 55 a.m. My xTC grandmother called this throaty urban noise the "tomato factory whistle," and she used it as a signal.

With a good chunk of dinner prepared in advance, it meant she was ready to serve breakfast.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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