It’s 7 AM and I’m in the empty bar of a Chengdu hostel looking at two slices of toast topped with a greasy egg, soy sauce to the side, a cup of bitter local tea, and a steaming bowl of rice porridge cut with minced pork and edible fungus. I could take or leave almost anything on the table, but I am glad of the porridge. Because I don’t really know what I’m doing in Chengdu—not in some amnesiac or drifting way, but in the sense that China’s a blind spot for me. I’ve never been here before. I have no relevant language skills, and few contacts. I don’t even know the history of this part of the world as well as I know anywhere else. Total. Blank. Spot. I just don’t know where I stand with Chengdu, but I always know where I stand with porridge.
I’ve never actually tried rice porridge before—I understand it’s the gruel of choice in this part of the world—but it doesn’t really matter. Any porridge is good porridge. Maybe it sounds a little grandiose, but I firmly believe porridge to be a universal equalizer.
I didn’t always have such a healthy respect for what is essentially a mushy, grey slop. Growing up, porridge meant Quaker Instant Oatmeal microwaved with tap water, a dish my father instinctively referred to as groatmeal. We shunned groatmeal. Many years later I rolled into a small East African city where one of the only reliable breakfasts was oatmeal. But it was thick, rich, and served with a side of whole, creamy milk to pour in and cut the globby brick. It was delicious. It was solid. (A Texan trader I met in Hargeisa once said it was a food that sticks to your ribs. I like that description, although I still feel like there’s wet spackling paste running down the inside of my chest when I recall it.) It tasted utterly familiar and foreign at once.
Everyone’s got a porridge. Oats, barley, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff—put that shit in some water or milk, boil that shit, add some jam or sugar or salt or honey or any shit you’d like. Shit, son, you’ve got a porridge.
Every porridge tastes a little different. Every porridge tastes a little the same. It’s the sameness that makes me feel like maybe Chengdu’s not so impenetrable. It’s the difference that makes me feel like I can begin to understand this place, at least the way it tastes relative to the grand cosmic porridge barometer. Maybe this is a bullshit theory. But it makes me feel good in the mornings when I’m about to take my first steps into random new cities. So I’m glad of the porridge.