The Great American Breakfast Porridge
Quick Oats and River Coffee on the Mississippi
Until nearly midday fog hangs over the river, which means we cannot yet paddle on. We can’t see the towboats. So the expedition crew relaxes: journaling, wandering the island, playing guitar. And drinking coffee, of course, brewed up fresh with Mississippi River water.
This stretch of the South has been conquered by agriculture; there’s just a narrow strip of wilderness squeezed between the levees. Out here I always feel cleansed by the solitude.
I’m on this trip to write a profile of John Ruskey, the preeminent river guide on the thousand southernmost miles of the Mississippi. I’ve heard plenty of talk of his campfire bacon and eggs. But someone on this trip is a vegetarian, and instead of that breakfast we are stuck eating oats.
Oatmeal seems like a breakfast that emerged from the mythic American past. I can imagine Twain eating oat porridge as he steamed past this island. And that is possible, though, as it turns out, oatmeal wasn’t quite the phenomenon then that it is today.
Quaker Oats were first advertised in 1882, late in Twain’s lifetime. They’re often credited as one of the nation’s first pre-packaged, mass-market foods. The company was an innovator: they claim to be have created the first trial-size packages, the first packaged premiums (silverware was included in the box, for ease of eating), and the first to print recipes on packaging. Quick oats, which debuted in 1922, were one of the first convenience foods.
The real boom in oatmeal consumption did not occur until the late 20th century, when the food got a marketing boon: the government endorsed its health benefits. Though nearly every nation has its own breakfast porridge, oatmeal has become an emblem of a certain sliver of American eating: it is still the breakfast of choice for the upwardly mobile, health-conscious go-getter.
Ruskey’s oatmeal consumption seems innocent of all this capitalistic history: atop his bowl he squirts a dab of honey, drops a dollop of chunky peanut butter, and sprinkles a handful of sunflower seeds and dried fruit. I follow his lead. And you know what? Here on our quiet island, it does feel like a perfectly wholesome camp food, another cleansing moment in our fog-soaked morning.