07 February 2011

7 February - Charles Dickens; Gruel

Charles Dickens, likely the most famous Victorian author in the English-speaking world, was born today in 1812, in Portsmouth, England.

It would be difficult, indeed, to escape from his iconic characters (supposing one would want to!)  While few of my generation - and subsequent ones - have actually read one of his novels, unless required to do so for English Lit, adaptations abound, mostly on Public Television, while the weeks leading up to Christmas are filled with every possible rendition of A Christmas Carol - cartoon characters (remember Mr. Magoo as Scrooge?), musicals, plays, movies, and television specials.  There are the images and words of Sidney Carton facing the guillotine ("It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done..."), of old Miss Havisham sitting in her ancient wedding dress among the cob-webbed and rat-infested remains of her wedding reception, of Oliver Twist holding his bowl up ("Please, sir, I want some more").

On of the best websites (and my favorite) honoring Mr. Dickens is David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page. If you have not read the books (and there is no library handy), every one of them is available there.  He also provides a glossary for unfamiliar words, synopses of the characters, illustrations, and a lot more. If nothing else, read "Dickens in America".  His account of trying to give a restorative to his wife during their transatlantic voyage is worth it alone.
Of all foods that might represent Mr. Dickens and his characters, GRUEL comes first to mind - a dish made from a cereal (like oatmeal or cornmeal) boiled with water to the consistency of a thin porridge, for more of which poor Oliver Twist took courage and bowl in hand.  According to the story, the gruel served in the workhouse was made with a little oatmeal and a lot of water.  If you want to make it as Oliver  and his fellow inmates would have known it, try this:

Put 3 tablespoons of oatmeal in the top part of a double boiler.  Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the oats and blend.  Cook over boiling water for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.  Strain through a fine sieve.  Add another cup of water and cook until just below the boiling point.

And if it still looks like it could keep body and soul together, add more hot water.

Contra Mr. Dickens, however, gruel was not the exclusive purview of work-house inmates and the working poor.  All classes served it - it was easily made and easily digested, making it not only a nourishing drink for invalids, but a light drink before bedtime that wouldn't lie heavy on the stomach.  The difference was, as usual, in the amount served and the flavorings used.  Boiled oatmeal is pretty bland, after all, but the addition of sugar and cinnamon make it a favorite dish.

So to make a more palatable gruel, add 1/8 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 tablespoon of sugar to the 3 tablespoons of oatmeal before pouring on the 1 cup of boiling water.  Cook in the top part of the double boiler over boiling water for 30 minutes.  Strain as above, then add 1 cup of milk.  Bring to just below boiling point.  Remove from heat.  Stir in a little butter and either cinnamon or nutmeg (about 1/8 teaspoon) and serve.

Much more palatable.

Or make it in spirit only and go out to a nice restaurant. 

Or, even better yet - make it in spirit, then go out and support the personnel of a nice restaurant (and I leave the definition of a 'nice restaurant' to you) and then donate the same amount of money on your bill to the local soup kitchen or food pantry.