The History of Porridge—from gruel to “porridge to go”—can be summed up in one question.
How much time should it take to make breakfast in the morning?
From boiled mush to instant oat bars, people have been eating the same formula for centuries, but they’ve spent a lot of time and effort towards making their morning bowl a more expedient experience.
“Gruel” is a french and middle english (“grewylle,” “grewell,” “gruwel”) term that dates back to the 14th century, referring to boiled wheat or oat porridge. By 1815, Sir Walter Scott had appropriated the food for irony: as one character doled out his revenge, he served it hot and liquidy, stating of his enemy that “he shall have his gruel.” In the course of the century, “gruel” became synonymous with work, punishment, and difficult labor. Language reflects its time – by the mid 19th century, industrial modernization was rapidly advancing. With steam engines and cities came widespread cultural shifts in living demographics, access to technology, and mass information. “Gruel” was definitively old world. One of the United States’ first bestselling domestic writers – Marion Harland, whose 1871 bestseller Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery” laid the cultural groundwork for national homemakers like Betty Crocker and Martha Stewart – said in her 1903 home cookbook of recipes (“prepared for the housewife, not for the chef”) that “four hours of boiling makes oatmeal good; eight hours makes it better; twenty-four hours makes it best.” Harland’s day long porridge might have tasted incredible, but it certainly wasn’t convenient or sexy.
Cereal is a Modern Health Food
And so in the late 1890s, two brothers from Battle Creek, Michigan, who ran a health emporium, hopped on the modern train and liberated breakfast from being an “ordeal.” To do so, they put porridge in a box. Kellogg’s breakfast cereal was the brothers’ solution to a niche that had not previously existed – a convenient nutritional breakfast. Although the idea of a pre-processed and packaged food was novel, Cornflakes’ success was due to the fact that eating breakfast cereal allowed consumers to partake in the fruits of modern technology with a product that wasn’t too newfangled or unfamiliar. Furthermore, cereal still had to be “assembled;” consumers had the satisfaction of a real meal and parents could put something that felt like real food on the table for their children. However, a certified healthful cereal in place of a housewife’s porridge meant that the cooking had been left to someone, something else. Machines were the source of labor behind steaming and pressing the cereal, and the Kellogg brothers (separately and contentiously) crafted the recipe. The original recipe by Doctor John Harvey Kellogg was concocted as a “health” food – whole grains are easy to digest, especially in contrast to the heavy and greasy fry-up breakfasts common in the country at that time. However, cereal became normalized as the family breakfast standard (in large part thanks to the highly effective and pervasive advertising of Cornflakes on the part of the other, more business-minded brother, Will Kellogg). Advertisers recognized their target demographic: children, who responded with mom’s pocketbook.
The Kids Want Cereal…
Cereals added loveable mascots to their brand, encouraged repeat purchases through coupon systems advertised on television, and repurposed the packaging boxes themselves into games and toys that made breakfast fun. Cereal companies also appealed to young consumers’ sweet teeth by exorbitantly amping up their products’ sugar content. As a result of New Deal agricultural relief, America had accumulated a large surplus of corn by the time the Baby Boomers were being sent off to school in the morning. Because corn was cheap, it replaced other whole grains as the primary carbohydrate source of many cereals, and high fructose corn syrup was added to the mix for flavor.
Cereal comfortably reigned supreme as the American breakfast of the twentieth century, even riding out the obesity epidemic backlash (for a deeper look at how some Americans have been coming down from that sugar crash, check out our other feature, #wtf is #oatporn) as an economic and familiar breakfast staple. Although it is most popular among children and nostalgic baby boomers, cereal has also long been loved by newly independent young adults. The 18-20somethings taking care of themselves for the first time straddle the line between child and adult, and as such, are their own parents. The minimal effort of pouring their own bowl “counts as food.” New college students in dorm rooms keep a box on hand as backup in case they miss meal-plan breakfast. And again, crucially, cereal is cheap. Bulk calories (a point towards added sugar) for minimal cost.
… Or do they?
Today’s 20somethings – the elusive and much coveted “millennial” market – have begun to abandon cereal. A 2015 survey conducted by Mintel, a global research firm, showed that since the late 1990s cereal sales have been fading. Why? Because in today’s fast paced world, where emails on your phone mean that you are never off the clock, where you are expected to know the news as soon as it becomes available (instantaneously) and where techies in San Francisco drink Soylent shakes to avoid taking a lunch break during coding sessions, 40% of the millennial demographic say that they’ve disinvested because pouring a bowl of cereal in the morning is a hassle. Namely, they do not want to clean the bowl after eating. Thus, while the techies are regularly satirized, they are only the most extreme example of a broader trend with longstanding national precedence: Americans do not like drudgery! The world gets faster, and they would like to eat their breakfast on the go.
Porridge To Go is weird.
It is a squeezable oatmeal pouch. One of the flavors is “red fruits.” An analytical guess is that Quaker’s marketing team is appealing to lazy – or apathetic – but health conscious consumers who know they should be eating fruits. They might have read that the more colorful a fruit is the more vitamins it has (partially true – color is usually indicative of Vitamin C). The product was released for the UK market, so it’s got the appeal of Anglo tradition and coziness. Still, when the average gas station or 7/11 stocks ample microwaveable plastic cups of Quaker instant oats and dehydrated fruits (just add water), and myriad granola bar meals on the go, Porridge To Go is a bit redundant.
From long slow porridges to hearty cereals to less hearty cereals to certified Heart Healthy porridges and breakfast bars… we have come full circle; breakfast is all a matter of preference.
There are myriad breakfast consumer personalities, and nutritionally speaking, all options are more or less on equal playing fields, depending on the approach one takes with them (whole grains vs. processed, added dairy/sugar/fruits/nuts). That being said, porridge is the breakfast of the ancients. A recent series of feel-good articles interviewed the 13 siblings of the Irish Donnelly family about being old. The Guinness Book of World Records has recently awarded them the title of “World’s Oldest Family,” (their ages range from 72-93). When asked the secret to a long life, they cited a lifelong diet of unprocessed foods, and at the center of that diet was creamy, slow-cooked, whole grain, apple-buttered porridge. Twice a day. A bowl in the morning, and a “nice warm bite before sleep.” Millennials, take note! For the Donnellys, and maybe you, too, the time devoted to cooking each morning is not lost, but invested, boiled into years of flavorful satisfying living.