“If you don’t behave, little mister, you’ll only have gruel for a week!” The threat of a menu consisting only of gruel is the classic symbol of cruel, domineering headmasters at cold orphanages and boarding schools.
When we think of gruel, we think of punishment and hardship. In truth, this myth about gruel was built up around a very function, filling food that has been used for centuries by cooks in many cultures to fill up hungry people. The recipe for gruel, quite simply, is to boil cereals or grainmeal in water, milk or broth until it is a mushy consistency.
If this recipes is not augmented with protein, it is a cheap meal addition that is cheap, easy to make in large quantities, and which requires no refrigeration. For this reason gruel was used often in institutions, schools or prisons to quickly feed many people on a budget, which is where its bad reputation originated. Gruel was also served in hospitals because it was easy to digest. It also has an impoverished reputation because during times of impoverishment or famine, people have been forced to sustain themselves on gruel, which on its own is bland, monotonous and lacking in protein.
Gruel has another place as a treasured as comfort foods. Oatmeal and Cream of Wheat are the preferred breakfast of many people. Corn meal mush was a staple of North American culture, as was quinoa and polenta gruels in South America. Wheat or rye has been used throughout Europe, starchy rice paste or balls in Asia, and in Africa you will find boko boko/harees (wheat mush) or Mealie (corn meal mush).
Gruel has been used wordwide to fill and comfort hungry people, to help survive long winters or famines, and as a comfort food. Even during times of plenty, we don’t have to abandon gruel. Adding sugar or salt, fruit or protein to different gruel mixtures can create fantastic breakfasts or stews. Grains don’t need to be baked in order to serve a need as a hearty component of meals. Rediscovering the other faces of gruel can be a satisfying addition to our menu of meal choices.