For much of my life I didn’t want to go near oatmeal, the Birkenstocks of food: good for you but an aesthetic disaster. Dull of hue and bland of taste, what was there to love? Oatmeal conjured thoughts of gruel, served to Oliver and his fellow orphans in Dickensian England, or porridge, something thick that lacked crunch, pizzazz and imagination. If we are what we eat, then I wanted to eat something international, unique, colorful, or connected to my childhood, as if the food that entered my body had to reflect my personality, creativity, interests, world view or personal history, and be varied enough each day to stave off boredom. I wanted culinary fireworks, not frumpiness. In hindsight, I often burdened food with outrageous demands which it could rarely meet.
A series of mid-life medical events – a few polyps snipped from my colon, a strange breast diagnosis, and then a frozen shoulder – motivated (uh, forced) me to take yet another look at my relationship to food. Was I eating for my health, for nostalgia, or to reinforce a foodie identity? How much of my eating was a form of self-expression, entertainment, consolation or reward, or a distraction from painful emotions? I had already removed gluten and most sugar from my life, shifts that felt wrenching at the time, as if I were losing part of myself. Yet perhaps those changes were necessary but not sufficient if I wanted to eat to nourish the person I am today and give my body what it needs now, at this age, rather than what my mind and emotions believe it should have.
The word “respect” comes from the Latin respicere, “to look back at, regard”. In the throes of intense shoulder pain, a sign of inflammation in the body, I decided to have another look at oatmeal. Could I respect what I once demeaned? Many people swear by oatmeal’s ability to fill them and provide energy for several hours early in the day. It’s also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. If eating oatmeal might hasten my shoulder recovery and give me more energy, why not give it a try? I prefer food, not prescription pills, to be my medicine when possible.
I could barely finish my first bowl of real oatmeal. Even a 1/2 cup of oats, the suggested serving, yielded a cooked volume that seemed in excess of my stomach’s capacity. I felt as if I were spoon feeding it to my finicky inner child and forlorn foodie, who desperately wanted to eat something a helluva lot better looking and more tantalizing. Oatmeal quickly proved itself to be worth the adjustment. It satisfies my hunger in ways that more creative breakfasts don’t. It eases my digestion to a remarkable degree (may oatmeal be an intestinal bulldozer, clearing potential polyps before they can grow!). It also calms my monkey mind; to have oatmeal every morning means one less thing to think about. That I need to eat it slowly, one spoonful at a time, helps me become more present. I even brought a bag of quick oats to Spain with me in February. When I finished it, I felt adrift until I could find something similar in a department store.
Since then I’ve discovered that even humble oatmeal comes in several varieties and mouthfeels, something my aficionado self can appreciate (those instant packets? nevermore!). My favorite so far is Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Quick Cooking Rolled Oats, microwavable in two minutes. It’s more smooth and creamy than their organic version. To satisfy my wanderlust, and after reading some rave reviews, I tried Irish Oatmeal from the same company. It exploded in the microwave and I didn’t care for the sticky, chewy remnants I salvaged (perhaps I will attempt again later). For now, I am sticking with what works. Taking a cue from baristas, I’ve begun decorating the surface of my cooked oats. I sprinkle them with Ceylon cinnamon and drizzle honey or date syrup on top. While oatmeal is neither sexy nor sophisticated, it can be dressed up!
Still, every so often, I am troubled by the thought that I might be eating oatmeal every morning for the rest of my life, as if that’s permanent culinary deprivation or a sign I am getting set in my ways. Yet, when I prepare a more visually striking and tastebud-tempting breakfast of an egg with gluten-free toast, sautéed vegetables or avocado, I am often hungry within an hour and find myself rummaging for a snack, which interrupts my focus. My body misses the oatmeal and the steady, calming energy it supplies. Oatmeal, please accept my apology for belittling you. Who knows, I might even start preparing you for dinner, too.
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