How gruel became cool

Nowadays it’s health-crazed hipsters rather than penniless orphans who are asking for more

G is for gruel. ‘Please, sir,’ says Oliver Twist. ‘I want some more.’ ‘MORE?!’ bellows the boorish workhouse master, cuffing him over the head. All children are familiar with the story, and its message: it illustrates just how hungry the scampish orphan must have been, to want more of the revolting gruel. The 1968 film really hammers it home about how revolting gruel is: ‘food glorious food!’ the children sing longingly, ‘hot sausage and mustard / while we’re in the mood / cold jelly and custard.’ But all they are given in their poor, miserable lives is ‘the same old gruel.’

Despite our mental pictures of the ancient Greeks and Romans luxuriating on their chaise longues being fed plump grapes and exquisite dainties, the staple diet for most people in the ancient world was gruel – even in towns, bread was a rare treat and meat was reserved for days of celebration and sacrifice.

Come the middle ages – not known for their culinary splendour – gruel was still the go-to foodstuff of the peasant classes. They could tax-dodge the miller by roasting some of the grain they harvested themselves, making it edible. It would then be ground in a mortar and simmered with water. Yum. Likewise in the Maya and Aztec worlds, where ground maize was made into a thin porridge in much the same way.

Gruel remained a staple right up until the industrial revolution. It is mentioned not only in Dickens but Hardy and Bronte, too. And it always connotes poverty, hardship and misery. ‘Hannah had brought me some gruel and dry toast,’ says the self-denying Jane Eyre. ‘The food was good – void of… flavour.’ No one, except literature’s most pathological masochist, ever looks forward to a bowl of gruel.

Until now. Gruel just means a thin food made by boiling oats or other grains in liquid. Gruel is porridge. And porridge is having a comeback.

Perhaps it’s winter drawing in. Perhaps it’s because we’re all over-identifying with the Danish idea of ‘hygge’ which translates loosely as that warm, cosy feeling of a glass of wine shared around a fire with friends. Perhaps it’s simply that we’re all broke and want something cheap and nutritious. Whatever the reason, porridge is set to be the food of Autumn. Pret A Manger started the trend with its Five Grains porridge containing such name-drop ingredients as quinoa and coconut water. Now 26 Grains is shortly to open in Neal’s Yard. It is a concept restaurant, along with cookbook of the same name, that celebrates porridge in all its hearty glory. There are trad options – banana and chocolate – and daring affairs with cardamom, matcha ice cream and toasted buckwheat.

And it’s not limited to Covent Garden. Oatsotto has replaced risotto in all manner of health-conscious joints and Istu’s hotpots are basically rice in broth. Surely it can’t be long until the craze for Asian food takes us to Korea and its jat-juk, a pine nut and rice porridge.

Will gruel ever be fully habilitated? Only time will tell. But the next person you hear asking for ‘more’ is likelier to be a health-crazed hipster than a penniless orphan. Gruel is now officially cool.

For more entries from the Dictionary of Food, click here


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