For years I was a devotee to the humble oat. Steel cut, rolled, or reconstituted from a packet, I liked them sweet with a swirl of browned butter and maple syrup, as much as I enjoyed them savory, cooked with coconut milk and adorned with a fried egg and sambal sauce. I’d have said that my fount of oat appreciation was boundless, that I could eat them every morning with no complaint. However, being marooned on a French research vessel for two months in the South Pacific would change everything. With no land in sight and nothing but muesli for breakfast, my oat adoration was put to the test.
The best part about being an oceanographer is that is to do my research I have to sail the high seas. Floating on a research vessel thousands of miles from land in every direction is humbling. Epic sunsets. Dolphins! Sharing stories like it’s summer camp during communal meals in the galley. Because an empty stomach is a recipe for seasickness, eating enormous amounts of food during long, grueling days is practically mandatory.
During the second year of my PhD I got the opportunity to sail across the South Pacific with a team of French scientists. The mission was a once in a career chance to collect samples from a remote location where few humans ever get to go, but if we’re being honest what got even veteran oceanographers a little jealous was the food. Rumors suggested that French research vessels had never-ending supplies of freshly baked baguettes, foie gras maybe, and wine at every meal. It sounded like a far cry from the fleet of American research vessels, where alcohol is strictly forbidden and there’s never a cheese course.
After setting sail from New Caledonia I discovered that the dining experience lived up to the hype. Lunch and dinner were fancy affairs. I sauntered into the galley for the first day’s lunch wearing my salt-crusted work clothes and boots and was promptly kicked out of the galley to change. The French scientists cleaned up for meals. There was table service, and the waiter wore a suit and tie. I said “merci” often and unironically. I was even asked how I wanted my meat cooked. I knew how to say “medium” in French, and how to say “rare” in pantomime, and everything came out perfect.
There seemed to be no end to the pomp and circumstance of lunch and dinner aboard the ship. Breakfast, in contrast, was a minimalist affair. I soon realized that my idea of which meal was the most important of the day was a little skewed. Each morning, an unattended Tupperware of oats and dried fruit sat unceremoniously next to a pyramid of applesauce cartons that threatened to topple with the pitch and roll of the ship.
The concept of muesli—oats soaked in juice with apples and nuts—was hatched around the turn of the century by Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner who served concoction to patients in his sanatorium with the promise of better health. For the first week I was unfazed by the paltry breakfast option, even a little relieved. A hippy breakfast like muesli was a salve to the Noah’s Ark of different critters—all cooked medium rare—that I’d eaten at every lunch and dinner. After all, I professed a love of oats in every incarnation and it was not my first muesli rodeo.
After 2 weeks of breakfasts the muesli Tupperware was still a morning fixture, its contents magically replenished overnight. By the third week, breakfast was getting under my skin. I started to resent the muesli. As much as I consumed the muesli, the muesli consumed me. My French shipmates seemed indifferent, transitioning seamlessly from the breakfast table to the day’s experiments, whereas I was growing increasingly panicked that the gurgling in my stomach was a fiber overdose.
A glimmer of hope was presented to me around the end of the first month. I was offered a half full jar of peanut butter, a holdover from another American, a condiment that the French wanted nothing to do with. I painstakingly rationed out portions to spice up the muesli every third day, until a prankster stole the jar.
I tried making the muesli into porridge. I commandeered the cream for the coffee and attempted those overnight Pinterest-style oat incubations. I even picked out the dried fruit in an unsuccessful attempt at savory muesli. After two months nothing could make the muesli more palatable, so I started sleeping in, hoping to avoid breakfast altogether. In the end, I survived. Our ship made it to port in Tahiti and I stumbled down the gangway to dry land in search of brunch. I haven't touched muesli since.