For me, mornings have always been a painful, messy time. So it’s fitting that my relationship with oatmeal, one of my favorite breakfast foods, has been a long and gnarled one. It all began when I was 6 years old, and seated at the kitchen table.
It was another hectic morning before kindergarten, my dad bustling around to get ready for work, and my mom moving swiftly around the kitchen in a noble and ongoing attempt to make sure that we had a warm breakfast before school. Then, it didn’t occur to me to appreciate her effort. I just assumed that making breakfast was a given, something that would always happen.
So, like any morning, I sat perched on one of the wooden chairs crowded around the table. My stumpy legs swung back in forth in the air, and my elbows sprawled in weird angle along the pine-colored table as I supported my head with my hands. I stared mindlessly at the corner of the table, wondering what today’s breakfast would turn out today.
Maybe it would be pancakes—one of my preferred options then, and even now. I could see them so clearly in my mind’s eye, a pair of pale circles studded with the purple indents of fresh blueberries. Much to her dismay, I would prod my mom to undercook my pancakes—a bad habit, I know—but I loved how the almost batter of the middle mixed with the oozing tartness of the berries, and the stickiness of the liberally applied maple syrup. Those undercooked pancakes were heaven to a 6-year-old Madeleine, and at that moment, I was convinced that I could smell them from the kitchen.
But instead, my mom put a bowl of something tan and mushy in front of me. It was speckled with darker brown spots, and it smelled strange—not exactly like cardboard, but definitely not pancakes with blueberries and maple syrup.
I looked at the bowl, and then back up to my mom, who handed me a spoon.
“Mom, what is this?” I whined.
“Oatmeal,” she explained, pointing at the brown flecks. “Look, I put some brown sugar in it for you, it will be delicious.”
Sugar sounded promising, so I prodded the mushy object cautiously, shifting just the littlest bit onto my spoon before slowly putting it into my mouth. The taste was overpowering and horrible, so I made a face and dropped the spoon, announcing that I definitely was not going to eat that “oatmeal.” In fact I hated oatmeal, didn’t my mom know?
She looked at me exasperated, knowing there wasn’t enough time to make a new breakfast. We were out of cereal and had to leave within minutes to make the very strict kindergarten drop-off time. But I decided to make my stand, digging my heels in and refusing to eat until the threat of punishment became too much. Like someone being forced to swallow a maggot, I ate a spoonful of oatmeal, gagging as the chunky gruel slid down my throat. But it didn’t end there, I was forced to finish a few more bites, and glared at my mom with increasing hostility with each spoonful.
Finally released after the fifth swallow, I stood up, and gathered my backpack, and realized that revenge was well within my grasp. So I waited until my mom rushed over, with purse in hand and my younger brother in tow.
“Ready sweetie?” she asked. In response, I forced my breakfast back out of my stomach,
staining the front of my plaid jumper with oat-speckled vomit. Wiping my mouth, I smiled in triumph, convinced that in the war against oatmeal, I had come out on top.
So I avoided oatmeal for the next decade or so, starting my days with crispy omelets, clusters of granola, smooth and tangy yogurt, decadent eggs-in-a-hole—anything that wasn’t the lumpy, taupeish substance that I now associated with vomit and defeat. I wouldn’t even consider touching the stuff until one day in high school, when mornings became so hectic that having overnight oats, something that we could prepare the night before, was a boon. Plus, oatmeal was something that I strongly associated with my mom, and like many young girls, I wanted to emulate her, even if I didn’t really know it. If you are what you eat, then maybe oatmeal would make me a little bit taller, more eloquent, more mature—more like her.
So 10 years later I sat down at a different kitchen table, and I prodded the lumpy substance cautiously. I shifted just the littlest bit of oatmeal onto my spoon and slowly put it into my mouth. Instead of throwing up, this time I smiled.
“See,” my mom said. “I told you that it would be delicious.”
From that moment, I haven’t looked back, ordering and making oatmeal right and left. When I came to school, it became the backbone of my diet, and I ate the dining hall’s goopy, gelatinous version of the dish every morning without any toppings whatsoever (disgusting, I know). I liked it simple—no sugar, only fresh berries—just the way my mom ate it.
Recently, I’ve noticed oatmeal cafés popping up around the East Coast, one just off of Washington Square Park in New York, and one down in Somerville’s Davis Square. At these restaurants, oatmeal is anything but simple, it’s an art form in and of itself. Chefs toss the simple grain with nut butters or pestos, topping carefully constructed bowls with everything from chocolate and jam, to cheese, vegetables, and eggs. I’m still intrigued by the ingenuity, but the only time that I’ve visited one of these places, mom in tow of course, the bowls created to make oatmeal your main food group just seemed too complicated, too fussy. Oatmeal and I had come so far, why ruin a good thing?
So I ordered what I could make at home: plain oatmeal with berries on top. And it was perfect. It’s funny isn’t it, how the things we hate can so quickly become the things we adore?