Straight after the usual exuberance and abundance of the festive season one feels the urgency of going on some sort of detox diet, and my January has been particularly frugal. This month’s frugality has given new importance to breakfast in my daily routine and made me more creative in my re-thinking morning porridge: oats, rye flakes, quinoa, or buckwheat, are all the rage in my water-infused morning staple together with chia seeds, linseed, dried fruits, nuts and spices. And so, as I was re-reading Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, I was struck by the idea that gruel perhaps would not be so unappealing to contemporary porridge-eaters as it was to Oliver and his companions, and in fact to generations of readers afterwards.
Most of you will remember the scene in the 1960s musical Oliver!, where a multitude of kids sings ‘Food, Glorious Food’, craving for sausages whilst dreading their daily meal of gruel, which the kids are indeed about to receive: a grey, insipid-looking, disgusting broth. In the novel, the scene is not as fantastic of course, but indeed gruel makes up the main staple of the poor little orphans’ diet, hence connected with bad health and abominable taste. In Dickens’ own words:
So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative […] of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. (Chapter II, Part I)
The gruel offered to Oliver & co. is so watery and with so little flour or grain in it to be called ‘thin gruel’, indeed a soupy drink, rather than an actual meal! Later in the novel, Mr. Bumble remarks: “‘Come, Oliver! Wipe your eyes with the cuffs of your jacket, and don’t cry into your gruel; that’s a very foolish action, Oliver.’”, with the narrator’s sneering that ‘It certainly was, for there was quite enough water in [the gruel] already.’ (Chapter III, Part II) Crying into Oliver’s own gruel would add even more misery to the already poor meal in front of him: gruel is the life of these little fatherless children — bland and unpalatable.
But what was gruel like anyway? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘A light, liquid food (chiefly used as an article of diet for invalids) made by boiling oatmeal (or occas. some other farinaceous substance) in water or milk, sometimes with the addition of other ingredients, as butter, sugar, spices, onions, etc.’. In A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852) by Charles Elmé Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria, we find various recipes for gruel with different types of cereals. The first type suggested (plain gruel) is simply made with a mixture of various crushed grains (groats), mainly oats, but could have also included wheat, barley, and even maize:
‘No. 183. HOW TO MAKE GRUEL.
Mix a table-spoonful of Robinson’s prepared groats or grits with a tea-cupful of cold water, pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, and stir it on the fire while it boils for ten minutes; strain the gruel through a sieve or colander into a basin, sweeten to taste, add a spoonful of any kind of spirits, or else season the gruel with salt and a bit of butter.’
Francatelli here makes direct reference to a popular brand of the time, as he does later on the same page, when he suggests using Brown & Polson’s Indian corn to prepare yet another kind of gruel (‘No. 184. Brown & Polson gruel’). He lists three more possibilities with oatmeal and pearl barley:
‘No. 185. Gruel made with oatmeal.
In the absence of groats, oatmeal furnishes the means of making excellent gruel. Mix two table-spoonfuls of oatmeal with a gill of cold water; pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, stir the gruel on the fire while it boils and a glass of wine; stir the arrow-root while it is boiling on the fire for a few minutes, and then give it to the patient.
Observe that it is essential to perfection in the preparation of arrow-root, and, indeed, of all farinaceous kinds of food, that the whole of the ingredients used in the preparation should be boiled together.
No. 189. How to make gruel with pearl barley.
Put four ounces of pearl barley in a saucepan with two quarts of cold water and a small stick of cinnamon, and set the whole to boil very gently by the side of the fire (partly covered with the lid) for two hours; then add the sugar and the wine, boil all together a few minutes longer, and then strain the gruel through a colander into a jug, to be kept in a cool place until required for use; when it can be warmed up in small quantities.
As this kind of gruel is a powerful cordial, it is to be borne in mind that it should never be administered unless ordered by a medical man.’
Francatelli also describes another gruel option, with rice, ‘for relaxed bowels’ (no. 187). Francatelli’s gruels are, however, generally intended as a remedy for the sick, something energizing and simultaneously easy on the stomach. The working class of which Francatelli is talking about twenty years later is also a slightly wealthier class than the destitute of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Barley gruel, as a powerful cordial, cooked in wine and with added sugar, would have been far from being handed out to Oliver Twist: the gruel meal he is offered every day is without any doubt a gruel made of the poorest oatmeal with more water than needed, and no sugar to give the kids energy and keep them quiet. Indeed, Dickens shows in the novel how the opposition meat/gruel is one of class management rather than one of mere taste (as it is for us today), as Mr Bumble reminds us:
‘Meat, ma’am, meat,’ replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. ‘You’ve over-fed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a[n] artificial soul and spirit in him, ma’am unbecoming a person of his condition […]. What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It’s quite enough that we let ‘em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma’am, this would never have happened.’ (Chapter VII, Part II)
Meat would elevate the poor well above their condition, both socially and morally. The prohibitive costs of meat in the Victorian times made it a food which was indeed longed for by everyone, yet only really consumed by the wealthier classes. By giving him more than just gruel, Mrs Sowerberry made Oliver believe he could aspire to more than what he has now: not only should he aspire to become a better-off individual, but also to become a truly moral being with a soul, like the rest. Funnily enough, for the early Victorians this condition seemed to be acquirable via meat rather than a vegetarian diet – indeed, quite the opposite of today’s dietary tendencies!
This is an adaptation of Francatelli’s recipe for barley gruel. I love barley’s comforting texture and taste but it takes quite long to cook so it is not for rushed meals, although it can be cooked in advance. With the addition of wine, though, it makes more of a pudding or evening treat than anything consumable before 12 noon!
50g pearl barley
1 cinnamon stick
½ glass of red wine
1 tsp of sugar
- Rinse barley with cold water.
- Place barley and cinnamon stick in a saucepan with 900ml water.
- Bring to boil and then cook on a low heat for nearly two hours (or until water has been absorbed).
- Add half a glass of red wine and a teaspoon of sugar to the barley and cook for ten more minutes.
- Strain the barley and serve hot or leave aside to cool down and re-heat later.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Francatelli, Charles Elmé. A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852). Stroud: The History Press, 2010.