It’s 2016 and we’re still eating oatmeal. Give yourself a moment to process that. The substance that’s conflated with “gruel” and “mush” (not even an actual food but simply a bad texture) in the minds of many Americans is consumed so frequently that it holds a power position at the national breakfast table alongside eggs, bacon, potatoes, pancakes, and fruit. We’re living in a miraculous age of technological advancements, yet we voluntarily start the day like we’re street urchins in Les Mis.
I’ve ingested oatmeal in its myriad forms—rolled, Scottish, instant—for nearly three decades and even under threat of death I’d be unable to say definitively if it’s good or bad. Sometimes it has nuts and fruit and sugar in it, all of which are important life pleasures. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the texture is sludgy and sticky, which I happen to like because I enjoy experiencing the full, heavy starchiness of an impending carb coma. Other times it’s runny, sloppy, more slimy than creamy.
There are no standards, no rules. When it comes to oatmeal, your only guarantee is that without augmentation, it will be bland.
Oprah Winfrey shoulders some of the blame for this due to her constant promotion of steel cut oats during her early ’00s health kick. The culture has yet to recover; some of us are still pretending they’re good five years after her show ended. But more recently, the oat armada is powered by an Instagram-fueled cult of “clean eating” #blessed babes and bikini body engineers, and overnight oats are the fleet’s crown jewel. (Have you tried overnight oats? They’re exactly like regular oatmeal, except cold and in a mason jar.) Thanks to overnight oats, oatmeal is having something of a moment but this is a trend that I suspect will be as short lived as goji berry additives. (Goji berries are never going to happen.)
Part of my ambivalence toward oatmeal is probably due to my long-standing veganism. Over the 16 years of my exclusion from the vast majority of breakfast choices, oatmeal has been a bane and a blessing in equal measure. In grad school, I regularly ate instant packets of flavored Quaker oats for late-night dinner while watching cartoons, and it was heaven. But ten years later, when I found myself constantly on the road for work and eating breakfast in hotels, gluey, grayish oatmeal was often the sole option. I ate it begrudgingly, like a punished child.
My semi-shameful secret (which is not a secret to anyone who’s ever eaten with me) is that I’m pretty picky, over and above my veganism. I don’t add sugar to anything and I don’t really like dried fruit, but I’m committed to eating whole grains—which means many a hotel breakfast has ended with me crying “uncle” after eating all the fresh berries and chopped almonds I’d dumped on top of a bowl of steel-cut oats. (This is the closest I get to marshmallows in cereal.) Heap scorn onto me if you must, but let’s not kid ourselves; Big Oatmeal is kept afloat by people like me. It’s not on the McDonald’s menu because taste testers loved it as much as Egg McMuffins.
Rather, it’s an approved food for those whose austere diets forbid them from truly delicious choices. Plenty of overnight oats recipes try to distract from their lack of sweetness by piling on trendy, insulting ingredients like chia seeds and ginger, and they almost always rely on a skimpy dose of fruit to help you get it down. Welcome to the Dickensian orphanage that is clean vegan eating, where all your meals are founded on an ethic of deprivation and you dropped yourself off in a basket on the doorstep so there’s no one else to blame.
Even if it’s a staple at home, no one’s going to order oatmeal off a menu unless they’ve been backed into a corner by the rules of their diet. But a lame option is better than no option at all. (Except when it comes to sorbet, the most inexcusable “dessert” you can offer a vegan.) So though I may excoriate it, it’s like a family member I don’t want anyone else being too hard on.
Because I’m grateful for oatmeal, the lone vegan-friendly holdout in a sea of buttery pastries and meat-based breakfasts. As much as I grouse about the lack of flavor in those porridgey hotel bowls, I imagine I would have been even grumpier if I’d abstained from breakfast entirely. And now, many mornings I wait impatiently for my boyfriend to wake up so he can make me chunky oatmeal with peanut butter and apple and vanilla almond milk and rolled oats, dammit. Of course I could make up a bowl for myself, but it tastes better when he does it. And anything that involves loves and peanut butter and apples can’t be all bad, even if is only one step up from gruel.
Charlotte Shane, PROUD VEGAN, is the author of Prostitute Laundry and N.B. She lives in New York in spite of the fact that the best nondairy ice cream is in Boston.