I doubt if anyone would call oatmeal ‘exciting’, but it is certainly interesting – if only in a historic and linguistic sort of way. Oatmeal is, or was, ‘the bread of the North’ – although decent ‘real’ bread cannot be made from it on account of its lack of gluten. It was sometimes made in bread-like blocks by the expedient of making very thick porridge and pouring it into a dresser drawer, leaving it to set, then cutting it into slabs. Antique Scottish dressers can still be found with deeply knife-scored drawers from years of porridge cutting.
Oatmeal is undoubtedly versatile. Apart from porridge slabs and gruel (see yesterday’s post), it makes fine oatcakes and it is absolutely essential in the form of gingerbread called Yorkshire Parkin (see the Gingerbread archive), but I am particularly intrigued by its ‘savoury’ applications. Here is where the linguistic fun comes in.
Porridge is, of course, simply one form of the universal staple carbohydrate ‘filler’ – it is the oatmeally version of hasty pudding, frumenty, polenta etc. All of these bland stodgy fillers can be flavoured and embellished in an infinite variety of ways, depending on whim and availability of ingredients. In the case of oatmeal, one version is called ‘skirly’ or ‘skirlie.’ According to the OED it is ‘a dish of oatmeal and onions, etc., fried together’, and the name is apparently a shortened form of ‘skirl-in-the-pan’ – meaning something fried in a pan.
But why does ‘skirl’ mean to fry? The Dictionary of the Scots language comes to our rescue here. Skirl is apparently ‘a scream or shreek, or to make the sound characteristics of the bagpipes.’ Further elaboration comes from one of the supporting quotes:
“A favourite substitute for mealy pudding was made in a small pan in which dripping was melted, with oatmeal added. This concoction, which was known to us by the picturesque English name, ‘scream pudding’, had to be stirred all the time it was cooking, to prevent it from singeing. The Scots name for it is ‘skirlie’.
[Angus Duncan Hebridean Island: Memories of Scarp 93]
So – skirlie and scream pudding – names arising from the sound of cooking in the pan. Nice, Huh?
Another noisy Scots dish made from oatmeal is crackins –‘a dish made of oatmeal fried in fat till well browned.’ The same thing as skirly? Similar, it seems, but more specifically associated with the melted fat of pigs (crackins/cracklins, see the association?), or, even more interestingly, with fish bits as shown by the following quote from the Scots Dictionary: ‘Crackens . . . are formed of fish livers and oatmeal cooked together.’ (1914). As the dictionary also gives Crackens as a name for the ‘roe of herring, etc., which, when thrown into the fire, burst with a crackling sound’, perhaps this gave the name to the pudding rather than the cracking-crunching pork bits? Anyone for fishy-flavoured porridge?
And if the OED wasn’t magnificent enough in its explicatory function, believe it or not it has recipes within it. It supplies our recipe for the day, in the form of a supporting quote:
Chop two ounces of suet finely. Have a pan very hot and put in the suet. When..melted, add one or two finely chopped onions and brown them well. Now add enough oatmeal to absorb the fat.
Scots Kitchen. F.M McNeill. 1929
Quotation for the Day …
Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, 1755