Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Is Gruel Cruel?

I have talked about gruel before, on this blog, but it is a rare (maybe non-existent) food topic that can be exhausted in one short story. Yesterday I delved into an interesting nineteenth century English book of home remedies and recipes called Cookery for Invalids: Persons of Delicate Digestion, and for Children. Given the author’s hearty enthusiasm for the medicinal value of sherry, brandy, champagne, and other alcoholic beverages, I wondered if perhaps she was also upbeat about some of the traditional dishes for invalids – including gruel.


There is often a real kill-joy tone in nineteenth century home medical texts – as if there was a deliberate attempt to be punitive towards the sickly person, or at the very least, to ensure there was no secondary gain in the sick role. The concept of tempting the invalid’s appetite seems seriously at odds with many of the awful-sounding recipes in these books – and ‘gruel’ is the epitome of these.

The word ‘gruel’ is derived from the Old French gruau meaning ‘ground grain’, and in England in the fourteenth century, this is what was meant. Also at this time the word referred to a thin soupy dish made from grain. Gruel could be made from any grain, but in particular oatmeal and barley were used. The liquid might be water, or ‘cow mylke’ - or almond milk for the wealthy, especially during Lent. Depending on circumstances or availability, almost anything could be added to enrich this basic potage – leafy greens, eggs, currants, or wine, for example.

I am sure that some of these early ‘gruels’ or grain potages were delicious as well as sustaining, but by the nineteenth century something had happened to its reputation. Perhaps the Poor Laws had something to do with it, when it became one of the staple foods of the workhouse, its miserably weak character reinforced by the image of Charles Dickens’ Oliver holding out his empty bowl and asking for more?

The word ‘gruel’ instantly evokes the idea of eternally unappeased hunger. It even sounds thin and tasteless. It makes us think of prisons and workhouses, of gruesome conditions and gruelling work, of chronic coughs and wasting illnesses. Doesn’t it?

So, what does the wine-approving Mary Hooper say on the subject of gruel?

“Thus it is that gruel, which in former times was said to ‘gratify nature’ and to be the king of spoon meats and the queen of soups, and which played so important a part in the sick dietary, has fallen into disrepute. The fact is that in these days few persons know gruel except as manufactured from the starchy preparations the chief merits ofwhich appear to be that they “can be made in ten minutes;” and it is, therefore, no wonder so much dislike is expressed for it.
The delicious, creamy, nourishing, one may almost say elegant, gruel, made by the hands of our grandmothers for their invalids, is now hardly known among us. It was either made from groats, crushed in the household mortar, or bought specially prepared, and known as “Embden groats,” and was in either case admirably suited for the purpose. After many hours' boiling the gruel was carefully strained, and was then ready to be served plain, or flavoured, as the case might require. We can hardly wonder in these days that gruel is so unpopular, being what it is - a “patent” hasty compound manufactured to suit the slovenly and impatient culinary habits of the period - or that doctors have almost ceased to order it as an especially useful and restorative diet.
The present writer well remembers her mother, whilst relating to her the sorrow and distress of the nation at the premature death of the Princess Charlotte of Wales, adding it was reported that the Princess shivered when a basin of gruel was presented to her, as though such antipathy was a measure of the hopelessness of her case. But it is no bad symptom now when ladies shiver at the :sight of gruel, but rather an indication of a true taste which revolts against impure and badly prepared articles of diet. Gruel made as it ought to be, is rarely disliked, and is more nourishing, andin many cases to be preferred, to arrowroot - an expensive thing, and one most difficult to procure genuine.”

The author gives many recipes for gruel made from barley, oats, or fine wheat flour. I give you two of the more interesting versions, for your use when the cold virus strikes.


Restorative Gruel.
This delicious substitute for Groat Gruel is made as follows:-one ounce of rice, one ounce of sago, one ounce of pearl barley; put three pints of water, and boil gently for three hours, when the liquor should be reduced to a quart. Strain it in exactly the same manner as groat gruel, and flavour with wine, brandy, or anything else that may be suitable.
If made a little thicker, say with an ounce and a half of each ingredient to three pints of water, a jelly will be produced, which may be eaten cold with sugar, fruit, syrups, or preserve.


Onion Gruel.
This is an old-fashioned remedy for a cold, but can never be recommended unless boiled for at least five hours. The long boiling takes away the pungent odour of the onions and the breath will not then be aflected by them.
Take two ounces of Embden groats and four large onions sliced, put them on in a quart of cold water. Let the gruel boil gently for five hours, stirring occasionally, adding water to keep the original quantity. When done, strain through a fine sieve, salt to taste, and serve with toasted bread. The yolk of an egg beaten up in the gruel
is a good addition.

P.S Other recipes for gruel have appeared in this blog. They are:

Water Gruel (17th C)

Oatmeal Gruel (early 18th C) 

Barley Gruel (18th C)

Potato Gruel (19th C) 


Quotation for the Day.

“I’ll dispose of my teeth as I see fit, and after they’ve gone, I’ll get along. I started off living on gruel, and by God, I can always go back to it again.”
S.J. Perelman.

7 comments:

kitchen hand said...

Gruel in its rice form - congee - remains one of the world's most popular dishes. It's one of my favourite things to eat, with shreds of white fish, thin strips of ginger and a chili kick, but is still considered a convalescent dish.

Ken Albala said...

Oh fie, we love gruel. Especially because of the sound of it. Hey, I did a paper on convalescent diets, gruel of course plays a big part, as well as paps, panados and particularly unpleasant pasty meals. Would you like to see it? Ken

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Kitchen Hand. Congee, of course! It is a breakfast dish too, isnt it?

The Old Foodie said...

HI Ken, I have a love-hate relationship with the word "gruel" - cant get the poorhouse connotations out of my mind, I guess. I would love to see your paper on convalescent diets, please.

Ed said...

There is a Danish dish called Olbrod "Ale bread" that is a gruel made with rye bread crumbled up, beer and water. It is shown in Babbette's Feast.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Ed - that sounds like a dish with very very long historic roots. 'Soup' originally meant 'sops' - or bits of bread soaked in wine or broth. I had forgotten Babette's feast - must watch it again, thanks for the reminder!

Cattrix said...

I guess I love gruel like consistency, I have oatmeal every morning Very watery as I like to drink it rather than spoon it, with vanilla and cinnamon, a bit of brown sugar or bananas. It's Delicious!
On of the best best "soups" I ever made was a forgotten big crockpot of rice, beef bones and onions that cooked slowly for at least 12 hours before I remembered it. I would consider it gruel like as it was thin but was the most divine and silky textured food ever. I have yet to recreate it perfectly.