Left in Andover: The unbearable lumpish oatmeal

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In his poem Oatmeal, Galway Kinnell, Vermont poet laureate from 1989 to 1993, enlivens his solitary morning bowl by inviting “imaginary companions“ to share it with him.

The Pulitzer Prize winner’s Rolodex includes some persons of note: “Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal should not be eaten alone.”

The Leader children gathering ‘seconds’ furniture legs from a mill in Weston.

As a child I too found the texture of oatmeal unbearable. I could have taught John Keats a slick trick had Galway thought to summon me.

Dad was usually the first up each morning at Popplewood Farm. His first order of business was to kindle a fire in the wood cookstove, heart of our uninsulated house.

I loved running downstairs every morning to get warmed up by the kitchen fire. But I detested the porridge Dad stirred up and left to gurgle on the side of the stove for us after he had moved on to other work.

By the time I got up, it was a foul, clumpy paste. I became adept at cremating my portion in the glowing hot coals of the firebox when Mom’s back was turned.

The problem of “gluey lumpishness” in oatmeal has largely been remedied in modern times with the innovation of instant oats. Nowadays it takes real determination to make bad oatmeal. The breakfast staple has even attained gourmet status, featuring an array of enticing toppings.

Susan’s parents Herb and Miriam with their new gas stove in Northampton, Mass., in 1983.

The wild ancestor of avena sativa originated in the Near East in ancient times. Oats became a vital farmed crop in far Northern Europe and eventually New England because they withstand lower temperatures and wetter conditions than other grains such as wheat, rye, corn and barley.

This proved a matter of life and death in Vermont in 1816 — The Year Without A Summer. With 3-foot snow drifts in June and frosts marking every month, it was nigh impossible for crops to mature. However, in some cases oats were able to grow, offering a slim bridge to survival for man and beast.

We now know that this worldwide “Year of Starvation“ was caused by a massive volcanic eruption the year before, at Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Ash from the volcano obscured the sun, lowering temperatures and disrupting rainfall patterns.

But in 1816, people did not know the cause, fearing the change could be permanent, possibly divine retribution. Fifteen thousand Vermonters fled the state for less marginal latitudes where a degree or two temperature drop did not spell the difference between life and death.

When my own family migrated south for city life in Northampton in the 1960s, a white enameled wood cookstove came along with us. Dad installed it in the high ceilinged Victorian kitchen of our house on State Street where it resumed its position as the focus of family life.

Loathe to purchase actual firewood, he made do collecting odds and ends of junk wood and downed trees around town.

In retrospect, the “seconds” chair legs from Jaquith’s Mill in Weston, which had been my burden as a young child to haul into the basement for firewood, looked like a blessing.

A poem by Miriam Leader bidding goodbye to the wood cookstove in 1983.

But now it was Dad’s turn. He became a familiar figure limping around downtown on his bad leg pushing an abandoned shopping wagon full of scrap wood, a hatchet sticking out the top.

In 1983, my folks capitulated to modern times and replaced our loyal wood cookstove with a combo gas cook stove-heater. This was probably a fire hazard as it spewed out a furious hot wind from one side. It never held a candle to the original.

When friends Helen and Scott Nearing concocted their iconic recipe for Horse Chow, a sort of rough muesli, almost 100 years ago, raw oats were not considered fit for human consumption. Much has changed since then.

I still decline cooked oatmeal, even when offered to me dolled up like a sundae with nuts and fruit and maple syrup. Like a horse, I prefer mine raw.

There are fewer chances to be surprised that way.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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