A few weeks ago we went to hear Elizabeth Burns reading in the poetry series sponsored by the Wordsworth Trust. The reading was held in the dark but atmospheric St. Oswald’s Church in Grasmere, on a stormy night; later arrivals held back the heavy door against the wind and shook their umbrellas and their heads. Elizabeth was reading along with Christopher Reid, who was also very good, but he didn’t have a poem about porridge. Elizabeth did, but she is publishing it, so I will wait to link to the print version.
Her poem, along with Alison Easton’s mention of Jane Eyre a few weeks ago, set me off pursuing mentions of porridge in (British and American) literature, following memory, on-line searches, and the advice of better-read friends. It must be said that most literary porridge sounds barely edible, so it is nice that Elizabeth could find porridge made with love.
Porridge is also made with love in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (1875). In Chapter 3, the orphan Rose has moved in with her large family of aunts and cousins. Her Uncle Alec, recently returned from abroad, has a rather different ideas of parenting from either Heathcliff or Louisa May Alcott's own father, Bronson. Here he is trying to persuade her, by indirect means, to eat porridge.
‘When her uncle appeared at sound of the bell, he found her surveying with an anxious face a new dish that smoked upon the table.
"Got a fresh trouble, Rosy?" he asked, stroking her smooth head.
"Uncle, are you going to make me eat oatmeal?" asked Rose, in a tragic tone.
"Don't you like it?"
"I de-test it!" answered Rose, with all the emphasis which a turned-up nose, a shudder, and a groan could give to the three words.
"You are not a true Scotchwoman, if you don't like the 'parritch.' It's a pity, for I made it myself, and thought we'd have such a good time with all that cream to float it in. Well, never mind." And he sat down with a disappointed air.
Rose had made up her mind to be obstinate about it, because she did heartily "detest" the dish; but as Uncle Alec did not attempt to make her obey, she suddenly changed her mind and thought she would.
"I'll try to eat it to please you, uncle; but people are always saying how wholesome it is, and that makes me hate it," she said, half-ashamed at her silly excuse.
"I do want you to like it, because I wish my girl to be as well and strong as Jessie's boys, who are brought up on this in the good old fashion. No hot bread and fried stuff for them, and they are the biggest and bonniest lads of the lot.’
Rose finds she is distracted by the fascinating talk at the breakfast table, and ‘the detested porridge vanished without a murmur.’ The book is full of moral contrasts, here between healthy porridge and dubious ‘fried stuff’. Louisa May Alcott had to eat lots of detestable stuff in her own childhood, so we could forgive her some food moralism here.
Another Scottish poet named Burns also understands the transmutation of porridge into art. In ‘Epistle to James Smith’ from 1786, (read aloud on the BBC site) Robert invokes 'ye Pow'rs' and says he can set aside the pursuit of wealth, honours, and literary fame, as long as he still has wit and rhymes:
"While ye are pleas'd to keep me hale,
I'll sit down o'er my scanty meal,
Be't water-brose or muslin-kail,
Wi' cheerfu' face,
As lang's the Muses dinna fail
To say the grace."
Water-brose would be oatmeal porridge without milk, and muslin-kail, the dictionary tells me, is thin vegetable soup. But the poem is not a complaint about hardship; it is a celebration of his friendship and his uncontrollable flow of poetry.
Perhaps the most famous transmutation of all is in the tale collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1815 as Sweet Porridge, in which a poor girl is given a pot that magically produces porridge - but forgets to ask for the words that will make it stop. This is one of the many folk tales in which a magic spell producing food gets out of control. What stuck in my memory from childhood was the ending: 'anyone who wished to return to the town had to eat his way back'.