Gruel (or Hasty Pudding)

If you've read Just Following Orders, chances are you figured out that when we sing about "hasty pudding" in Yankee Doodle, we are singing about a porridge by another name--gruel. That's why Tom was so disappointed when, as a guest in the Hannibal boarding house, he was handed a bowlful of the same old gruel he probably had several times per week for breakfast, back home.

Hasty pudding isn't really hasty by today's standards. It's simply oatmeal, cooked the old-fashioned way. I mean the REALLY old-fashioned way--not 3 minutes like the "old-fashioned oats" some mothers still buy in a big round box. Hasty pudding (gruel, that is) takes a full 10 minutes of cooking on top of the stove, stirring it all the while!

It won't have the flavor of those little paper packets of tiny, powdery flakes of oatmeal mixed with lots of syrupy-sweet-tasting "fruit," which isn't fruit at all, of course. You really need to try the gruel to appreciate the difference. Of course, you'll probably want to add the fixings like I do--maybe honey, brown sugar, or butter. If you want to get really creative, add some protein with peanut butter. Or how about some sliced bananas, a small container of yogurt, raisins, or whatever suits your fancy? Now, let's get back to just the cooking:

Mix 3 tablespoons of the old-fashioned oatmeal. Mix it with about a half cup of water. Stir it up real good now until you have a nice pasty mixture. Throw it. NO! I don't really mean "throw it." Just put it into a 2 or 3-quart pan with a whole quart (4 cups, to be exact) of cold water. Do not cover that pan unless you want a mess to clean up when it comes bubbling over the top and onto your mama's nice clean stove. You can't stop stirring 'cause it's gonna stick if you do. Better set a timer or keep your eye on the clock, too, 'cause 10 minutes can sound like an eternity when you're waiting for something like this to get done. Don't cheat, whatever you do, unless you plan to pour it in a glass and drink it with a straw. That's how thin it will be if you don't listen to me. After 10 minutes, slide it off the burner onto a heat-proof surface and sprinkle just a pinch of salt in. Pinch meaning "a few grains and no more."

Now, go ahead and taste it to get an idea of what the Carters and the Mullins ate. Then, get your fixings out--what I already told you--and decide how many times a week you want to make this for your own breakfast (or supper). It's 'specially tasty in the wintertime.


To learn much more about the cuisine, culture and conflict in the days of the American Civil War, check out Just Following Orders: Escape from Guerrilla Warfare in 1863