We need to talk about porridge. Just the name conjures up visions of a sometimes-gluey, bland substance glopping into bowls—yes, glopping. It’s a legitimate contender for the least offensive breakfast food out there. It’s filling, it’s wholesome, and it’s what your peasant great-grandparents ate a hundred years ago. While porridge has recently undergone something of a makeover—with trendy overnight oats recipes popping up and entire concept restaurants in Manhattan and London now devoted to oatmeal—it can’t quite escape its boring, staid reputation. 

A century ago, however, porridge was vastly controversial. As historian Ellen Ross details in her book Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, porridge was at the center of battles between the working poor of late-nineteenth century London and the middle-class social reformers who sought to uplift them, the forerunners of the settlement house movement in the United States. Like it is now, porridge was considered cheap and nutritious, a thrifty, wholesome alternative to the bread and potatoes  that most working-class families ate for breakfast. But the mothers and wives of London’s East End deeply resented the intrusion into their daily lives and habits that porridge—mushy, bland, institutional—represented, especially when it came with the implicit assumption, on the part of social workers and other well-meaning agents of reform, that the poor squandered their wages on food they couldn’t afford. 

According to Ross, the main battleground of the porridge wars was the school meal. If children were taught to like porridge, and other so-called “poverty foods” (pudding, macaroni, oatmeal—maybe it’s just me, but these sound more like “delicious” foods), the logic went, their mothers’ tastes would also improve. This theory didn't work out so well. When faced with bowls of mushy porridge, kids tended to play with their food or, worse, throw it at the unsuspecting adult who had given it to them. Their parents’ reactions were similar, though presumably less violent. Ross describes feminist Maud Pember Reeves as the rare social reformer who was sympathetic to the resistance to porridge: Reeves noted that the limited number of pots and pans a poor woman owned meant that the smells of previous meals tended to linger, flavoring porridge with the stale odors of other foods. Even fans of savory porridge would have to admit that sounds less than appetizing.  

For those families who couldn’t afford milk, their watered-down porridge began to resemble gruel, a thinner, much-maligned broth whose association with orphans and the workhouse was cemented by Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Given the extent to which porridge had come to symbolize the oppression and diminished social status of the working class, Ross concludes that poor Londoners’ acts of resistance to porridge were nothing less than “defenses of bodily and social integrity.”

Ross’s conclusion may seem like an extreme one. After all, how bad can eating porridge really be? But the idea that poor people shouldn’t be spending their money on the “wrong” foods and should instead be persuaded to consume thriftily hasn’t gone away. It resurfaced most notoriously in the pervasive Reagan-era myth of welfare recipients who buy lobster and steak with their food stamps—“luxury” foods that they should be passing on in favor of porridge or its equivalent. The porridge wars are still being fought out today, with low-income families’ autonomy as consumers called into question by those who claim to know what’s best for them.

Just in February of this year, New York State lawmaker Patty Ritchie (R) introduced legislation that would restrict EBT card purchases to items deemed “essential,” a category that excludes candy, soda, cake, and “luxury items.” “The goal of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is to help low-income consumers make wise and healthy food choices,” Ritchie noted in a press release announcing the bill, going on to say that the proposed restrictions would help low-income families “stretch their food budgets,” a rationale that is not only strikingly similar to those of the porridge pushers of Victorian London, but that relies on the assumption that low-income families and individuals are unable to make rational choices regarding their diets. 

The porridge wars, however, can’t be boiled down to “good” autonomy versus “bad” paternalism. Is being able to choose unhealthy food really an expression of autonomy... or an unthinking impulse that may actually stand in the way of getting what you really want?

In Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, Sarah Conly writes that our choices about food represent one area of decision-making that consistently undercuts the conventional economic theory that individuals are always utility-maximizing. If we were truly rational actors when it came to food, she points out, we would always forgo the momentary pleasure of an ice-cream sundae for the greater pleasure of good health down the road. In other words, all of us—not just low-income families—sometimes make unwise choices about food; bills like Ritchie’s, then, unfairly single out the poor as non-rational actors. This is one reason why proposals like Philadelphia's recently passed soda tax, which theoretically impinge on everyone’s ability to buy soda, are seen as more palatable—despite the fact that in reality, they would disproportionately affect the consumption habits of the poor as opposed to those of the rich. The porridge wars, however, can’t be boiled down to “good” autonomy versus “bad” paternalism. Is being able to choose unhealthy food really an expression of autonomy, Conly asks, or an unthinking impulse that may actually stand in the way of getting what you really want? As the families and social workers who lived and worked in the East End discovered in the battle over porridge, there was, and is, no easy answer.   

From the hated scourge of working-class breakfasts, porridge was enjoyed by all classes in England by the beginning of the twentieth century (it had graced upper-class tables from the 1870s), and its association with the intrusion of state authority into the private sphere of the home faded. From there, it was just a matter of time until it started making its way into mason jars everywhere. Not only does porridge have a long and storied history as a breakfast food, it was stirring up controversy long before anyone thought of putting an avocado on toast.