Day 4 – Stories of COVID-19 and Sheltering-In-Place

Thursday, March 19, 2020 – Live to blog from my kitchen table

Today’s blog is inspired by my friend Ned White, who has beaten me in every game of pool I’ve ever played with him. Not that it bothers me, though. Ned’s real claims to fame are that he is an author, crossword constructor (watch for his next one in the NY Times), traveler, cook, and husband to one of the most creative and decent of all persons in the world, Carla White. For a long time Ned wrote Journeys Over a Hot Stove, a travel, cooking, and occasionally opinion, blog for the Bangor Daily News in Maine. Be sure to follow the link to the blog’s archive and some wonderful recipes.

My friend Jeff Logan (Calgary, AB) is a humorist and artist. Maybe in another blog I’ll tell the whole story of how this image came to be. It doesn’t have anything to do with my love of oatmeal but my spiritual and religious practice of Quakerism. Still, it was a great place to use the picture. (Hint: Check out the Quaker Oats guy carefully.)

I’m writing from our kitchen today because I had to whip up another batch of my baked oatmeal. Approximately every two weeks I bake two square nine-inch pans of oatmeal. Each pan produces eight rectangles of oatmeal and I have one rectangle per day for breakfast (358 calories). I love oatmeal and always have. I think oatmeal is the perfect food but Clemencia disagrees. She has a strong belief in beans and rice as the perfect food. She argues that when they are eaten together they provide just the right balance of protein, nutrients, and, you know, healthy stuff. As a scientist, she has logic and facts on her side but that doesn’t matter. I have irrationality, personal preference, and pure stubbornness on mine. So when it came time to stock up for this extended stay in our home, what did we buy? Well…let’s see…it seems we have more beans and rice on hand than oatmeal.

Nonetheless, I’m still completely dedicated to oatmeal and my belief in it. Hey, I just remembered, I actually wrote a piece years ago about my love of and faith in oatmeal. I submitted it to National Public Radio when the “This I Believe” series was revived. I hoped it would get selected for broadcast. Let me see if I can find it…(clatter, bang, shuffle, shuffle, slam, honk-honk, thud)…here it is!

From Sometime in 2006: Addicted to the Magic of Oatmeal

I love oatmeal: plain (with a little a salt to bring out the flavor); not so plain (with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon); exotic (with walnuts, apples, craisins, lots of cinnamon, more than a touch of vanilla, and freshly ground nutmeg). In fact, I eat the exotic oatmeal everyday for breakfast. I love oatmeal made in the traditional manner on the stove top and I love it baked. By the way, I’ve got some great oatmeal recipes. Let me know if you want to give them a try.

Just to be clear, if I’m ever invited to have oatmeal at your house, be advised that I have at least three oatmeal limitations. First, I’m not a fan of microwaveable faux oatmeal. It contains so many chemicals that I always worry about a universe-ending explosion when cooking it. Second, my oatmeal has to be made using the “old fashioned” rolled oats, not the ground-to-a-pulp “quick” oats that have no substance, taste, or reason for existence. Third, I won’t eat oatmeal without salt. The salt (which is always listed as an optional ingredient on the box) is what makes the flavor “pop.” Warning: most restaurants and hotels with the complimentary breakfast buffets don’t put salt in their oatmeal. Such an inhumane action is probably not worthy of a boycott or class action lawsuit, but do be aware that you’ll need to salt your own oatmeal. However, it should be a criminal offense when they (and you know who you are!) try to pass off the faux oatmeal as “homemade” or “freshly made.”

Shortly after moving to the East Coast, I wrote of my passion for oatmeal in a piece that I submitted to National Public Radio’sThis I Believe” project. I now believe they didn’t care much for it because it was kindly rejected in that soft-spoken NPR way by someone with one of those delightfully inimitable NPR-type names, like Dharma Chung-Nunberg. Nonetheless, I liked the piece and I’m going to publish it here anyway. (Ha, take THAT, Dharma!) 

I believe in the magic of oatmeal. My palate prefers the old-fashioned, whole grained oatmeal, but the magic of oatmeal transcends its form.

As a child, a steaming bowl of oatmeal, generously trimmed with farm-fresh cream and mounds of sugar, seemed to warm the kitchen of our Iowa farmhouse. On frigid February mornings the oil-burning stove at the end of the kitchen strained against the toe-numbing cold. Yet the oatmeal warmed me inside-out and seemed to mystically radiate throughout the drafty house. On those mornings of school bus windows frosted-over for the entire ride into town, I still remained warm and satisfied until the noon bell signaled my daily race with my best friend Mark down the steps to the basement lunchroom.

As a young man and new father I introduced my baby boy to oatmeal’s magic. Having wrestled him into his high chair and locked him into place, I’d begin the morning breakfast routine. He’d strain against the unyielding high chair and vocalize his hunger. I’d mix his oatmeal with just enough water of just the right temperature. As the first spoonful of the oat concoction reached his lips he’d begin to emit a low “mmmm” sound. He would eat and coo, and I’d whisper to him of his goodness and strength and my love for him. For the next several minutes we were connected, father and son, by the warmth and satisfaction of oatmeal. These early bonding moments have been built upon through the years as he grew and became a man and I, well, became just an older man.

Today, for the first time in my life, I live far from both the farmhouse and the son. Preparing to move from Des Moines to Washington last December I gave away nearly every food item in my kitchen. Except my near new box of oatmeal. Upon arrival I unpacked it and shelved it in a cabinet where I couldn’t miss it. The following morning it became my first meal in my new home.

Middle age demands I eat oatmeal more for its physical benefits today and, sadly, trim it less generously now, using limited amounts of brown sugar and skim milk. As the morning’s first spoonful triggers my taste-buds, it also triggers my memory. It takes me back to winter mornings in which I remained warm despite the bitter cold. Even more it warms me with the memory of being a dad. It transports me back to a series of wonderful mornings when my son and I became a part of each other through the magic of oatmeal. I can close my eyes and recall the sounds, sights, smells, and smiles of those moments. When I open them I realize it is only a memory and, even more, realize it won’t happen again.

Or will it?  Who knows…in the latter stages of my life I may be the one who coos as my son lovingly feeds me my oatmeal. By then, cream and sugar really shouldn’t be a factor in my longevity…so be generous, my son.

Uh oh. I just realized my baked oatmeal recipe will have to wait until tomorrow because this blog is getting too long. My apologies to Ned and all.

Two quick things in closing…and yes, I will include the recipe tomorrow:

First, Sock Offensive news. There really isn’t anything new. Three days straight I have worn the same pair of socks and Clemencia has not noticed. I shower, get dressed, make hot water for tea and coffee, prepare my oatmeal, and, then, when she gets into the shower, I put on Bert (my left sock) and Ernie (right sock). It just seemed right to give them names since I’m spending so much time with them.

Second, really, there is magic in oatmeal. Friends of ours, a husband and wife, were diagnosed with cancers at the same time. They also discovered that oatmeal was one of the few things they could eat during chemo treatments. I started making them baked oatmeal and they fell in love with it. It not only nourished their bodies but their spirits. It was also great comfort food. Happily, their cancers are in remission now. The oatmeal probably didn’t heal them, but I hope the love it conveyed helped.

If I could make baked oatmeal for you during this time when we all need nourishment of spirit and comfort, I would. I can’t so I hope you will try the recipe and will feel the love I’m sending you. If you do, pass the recipe and love on.

One last thing…we had our first Virtual BYOB Coffee Break/Happy Hour today. Ten people showed up from California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Ontario, and Washington State. We talked, we laughed, we made new friends, and we broke the tension over COVID-19 for a little while. We’re doing it again next week, Thursday, March 26 at 5:00 PM. However, I’m changing the name from “BYOB” to “BYON” – “Bring Your Own Nose” because in these times, everyone needs to be wearing a silly clown nose just to evoke smiles from others. Today we shared the most memorable complement we’ve ever received. Next week our conversation starter will be “With the knowledge you have now, what would you have done differently?” The connection information is below my signature. Hope you can join us!

See you tomorrow…with the recipe. In the meantime, stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, and think about someone you know who needs the magic of oatmeal and your love.

Tom

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