Porridge Throughout Western History

Foodways are a powerful analytical framework for studying anthropology and archaeology. The Culinary Expression of a society is indicative of myriad characteristics, including but not limited to:

  • Interaction with the environment – what indigenous foods came from the ground, what has been consciously placed there
  • Economics and social hierarchy – who eats what and how much. Who feeds whom?
  • Perception of health and the body – nutritional beliefs and practice, folk medicine, religious significance of specific ingredients

porridge history

Porridge In Antiquity:

12,000 BP (Before Present): Evidence of agriculture in the fertile crescent (the crescent moon shaped region in the Middle East that covers Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Northern Egypt).

7000 BP sees fully irrigated agriculture in the fertile crescent, where people are growing wheat, rye, and barley.

Porridge as medicine: Ancient Greek physicians prescribe different gruels and boiled grains for different regimens attributing distinct healing qualities to the grain and method of cooking. Boiled barley is a staple, served with honey or olive oil. The sicker and more unable to keep down food one gets, the thinner their gruel.

Porridge feeds the Roman Empire: Cereals comprise most of the Romans diet; they rely on different types of wheat (emphasis on spelt) and barley to make porridges and course breads. Oats, rye, and millet are also available. Bread is a higher status food than porridge – porridge of inferior grains are used to feed the urban masses.

~10,000 BP: Evidence for rice domestication pops up in the Yangtze River Valley in China.

NB: Arguments among cultures about being the “first” to do anything is particularly strong in archaeological agriculture. For example, there is much debate amongst Middle Eastern countries over who was the first to make hummus. In regards to rice cultivation, in 2003, Korean archaeologists claimed a much earlier source point for domesticated cereal in Asia, citing phytoliths (plant remains) from 15,000 BP, rather than the commonly accepted 9000-12,000 BP range that indisputably has been linked to the Yangtze. Who grew it first, whose civilization is the most historied becomes a point of nationalism, and a ploy at global prestige and power. After all, rice is a staple food for some 3.5 billion people around the world!

The other early domesticated staple crop in Asia is foxtail millet, grown in the colder northern regions of China (rice is a tropical plant that requires lots of water), which was domesticated around 7500 BP.

Agriculture spreads throughout the rest of Asia in two distinct population migrations: the Lungshanoid expansion and the Austronesian dispersal. Southeast Asia and the Pacific receive rice, language, and accompanying pottery and tools in an epic Neolithic founders package that is delivered by boat faring, Austronesian language speaking people over a period of 4000 years. They are believed to have originated from Taiwan. The earliest accepted evidence of rice cultivation in India comes around 3000 BP in the Indus Valley. There is rice in the Ganges River Region at 4000 BP.

In Africa, pearl millet is the earliest grain, and it spread to Southeast Asia and India. In SEA and India, millet’s dominance is eventually replaced by rice, but it is still important in Africa because of its durability in harsh climates. Africa cultivates a different strand of rice, unique to the continent, by the Common Era (3500 BP). Their rice is adopted by European colonizers, who take it with them to North America to be grown by West African slaves in the American south, although eventually Asian rices brought by different Europeans replace the rice being produced in the Americas and Caribbean, due to flavor preference.


Post Industrial Revolution:

Breakfast becomes an industry! A good case study is the timeline of Quaker Oats.

Quaker becomes trademarked in 1877, begins national advertising in 1882, and joins the wave of commercial breakfast cereals. In porridge, these includes Cream of Wheat, which uses the minstrel-like character of Uncle Rastus as one of the first mascots for an American food product, and Kellogg’s. The breakfast cereal industry leads massive lobbying, advertising, and scientific investment campaigns to assure their place at the capitalist table. Studies funded by cereal companies declare a big breakfast critical to health and energy – it’s the most important meal of the day! On both sides of the Cold War, grains are promoted for their health benefits. In the USSR, “Hercules” brand oatmeal is what kids eat to grow strong. In the US, children who want to grow up to be athletes eat Wheaties. Quaker Oats capitalizes on evidence that oats help lower cholesterol, which remains one of the key marketing strategies for oatmeal. Cold cereal eventually replaces hot cereal as “America’s Breakfast”, and General Mills and Kellogg’s continue their concentrated marketing towards children, with toys, characters from popular culture, and more fun ways to eat sugar.

Throughout the middle of the 20th century, porridge, like most foods sold in supermarkets, becomes more processed in order to increase shelf life. Many products are also “enhanced,” “enriched,” or “fortified” by additives. White flours, which lost the vitamin content of the whole grain, get enriched with added vitamins and iodine, after a series of reports publicize nutritional deficiencies suffered by the poor, who cannot afford a variety of whole foods needed for a balanced diet. High Fructose Corn Syrup increases food’s sweetness, caloric content, and patriotism by letting consumers do their part to reduce the national corn surplus, which results from federal agriculture subsidies established during the Great Depression. As a result of the atomic age, foods are now conceived in parts, rather than as whole ingredients.Cooking became simpler, reducing once complicated recipes into instant mix packages of dehydrated premixed ingredients. Convenience was a huge selling factor (check out this commercial). In an attempt to conquer modern nutritional deficiencies, the Food and Drugs Administration introduces the Nutritional Labeling System in 1970 to help consumers navigate the supermarket. However, this only emphasizes that examination of food by its nutrition content, and not by the older means of discerning freshness and quality. Various food industry lobbies have influence over what is considered to be a proper “daily value” of sugars, carbohydrates, or fats. For example, the food pyramid many of us grew up with: A triangle with a big, solid foundation in grains and grain products. Fats are demonized for their association with cholesterol and by extension, heart disease; while carbohydrates, particularly from grains, are glorified, and sugar got the benefit of the doubt. This is not a question of whether sugar or fat should be the enemy: the point is that the food industry has a big hand in what the government tells people is the proper way to eat.

A nationalized transport system meant a nationalized supply chain, and markets were no longer restricted to seasonal local produce. Farm to market came to mean massive farms in California to the rest of the country.

’60s counterculture kicks off a sort of agrarian post-modernism: organic food co-ops and vegan cookbook authors on the fringes of American food culture call for a return to the land, basic ingredients, and the nutritious and flavorful ingredients of other cultures. They denounce chemicals being used in pesticides and as bio-weapons, and conspicuously eat “crunchy” health foods. Farmer’s markets become a thing. Organic doesn’t really take off on a large scale until the turn of the century, when fear of the obesity epidemic, backlash against perceived failed government health recommendations, and a new pop fitness culture lead to the embrace of “organic” and “healthy” food. This occurs in many ways at the same time: the upscale grocer Whole Foods radically changes how many people think about food, even as it becomes a corporate behemoth of its own. Michael Pollan and other Berkeley-centric foodies lead the charge on a new “Slow Food Movement”. With the exception of paleo blogs and various grain-free diets, the impact all of this has on porridge is huge. Whole grains are back in style, whether because they are healthier, have more complete auras or life forces, belong to long culinary histories, are exotic, or promise redemption from decades of processed food. Simultaneously, distinct cuisines from around the world are embraced and brought to the mainstream. Chinese or Indian foods are no longer viewed as cheap takeout, but as complex cuisines on par with French and Italian cuisines that had been hailed for so long as the triumph of cooking. Now, porridge is valued for its history, texture, and context. Where did the grains come from? What culture did a particular cooking method come from? How do I cook it at home?