Porridge for One: The Tale of the Grub Street Hermit


In his youth Mr. Henry Welby, the man who would later become known as the “Grub Street Hermit,” enjoyed riches, talents, and, above all, popularity. Contemporary accounts describe Welby as a sympathetic gentlemen much beloved in his neighborhood of Grantham. Yet, despite such esteem, Welby at around age forty decided to leave his tranquil home nestled among the gentle green hills of Lincolnshire and move to colorful, riotous London.

What happened to Welby in London remains for the most part a mystery; all that is known is that he became a hermit. A curious document published in 1637 attempts to untangle the strange knot of events that led to Welby’s retreat into solitude. “This Gentleman, Master Henry Welby, was Forty Years of Age before he took this solitary Life,” the document reports.

Those who knew him, and were conversant with him in his former Time, do report, that he was of a middle Stature, a Brown Complexion, and of a Pleasant Cheerful Countenance. His Hair (by reason no Barber came near him for the Space of so many Years) was much overgrown; so that he, at his Death, appeared rather like a Hermit of the Wilderness, than Inhabitant of a City. His Habit was plain, and without Ornament; of a sad-colored Cloth, only to defend him from the Cold, in there could be nothing found either to express the least Imagination of Pride or Vain-Glory.

The document goes on to speculate that it was an attempt on Welby’s life, by Welby’s brother of all people, that sent him into solitude, where he remained until his dying day. Welby took a rambling house in the lower end of Grub Street, near Cripplegate. He chose to inhabit only three rooms — one for meals, one for rest, one for study — and gave his servants dominion over the rest of the house. Welby carefully protected his solitude. He arranged his daily habits so that when he dined his servants would be in the bedchamber, preparing his bed or lighting the grate; when he retired for the evening they would be in the dining room, clearing away dishes. Such was his habit for forty-four years, it was said.

Welby’s meals were as austere and as strictly ordered as his life. He “never tasted Fish nor Flesh” and he never drank either “Wine or Strong Water.” His chief food was oatmeal boiled with water, which in summer was accompanied by a “Sallad of some cool, choice Herbs.” On days when craved additional nourishment, Welby ate the “Yolk of a Hen’s Egg” (but no part of the white) and crustless bread. His drink of choice was four-shilling beer. Sometimes he ate “Suckets,” or sugar plums, and “Red Cow’s Milk.”

Henry Welby’s recipe for hermit’s porridge has, unfortunately, been lost to history. But Benjamin Smith Lyman’s cookbook Vegetarian Diet and Dishes (1917) presents an appetizing recipe for oatmeal porridge sure to tickle the palate of any London hermit.

Oatmeal Porridge

Let half a pint of oatmeal steep in about a pint of water over night. In the morning, boil it an hour or more, regardless of the twenty minutes prescribed on the package as enough. It can hardly be cooked too much. Add salt to the water, if you like. Eat with sugar and milk (or terralac) or butter (or a palatable oil); and slices of banana, or apple sauce, or other fruit jam or marmalade, mixed with it, go well. Or figs may be cooked in the porridge; and a spiced steam pudding is sometimes made with the oatmeal.

Eggs Samuel Butler

In Christopher Morley’s novel The Haunted Bookshop (1919), the diminutive Brooklyn bookseller Roger Mifflin finds himself, one cold November evening, caught up in a whirlwind of international espionage. German spies, amorous advertising men, and pouting flaxen-haired heiresses revolve in and out of Morley’s novel, which provides an antic glimpse into New York life during the 1920s.

In one of the novel’s more delightful moments, Roger Mifflin prepares dinner for a young advertising man come wandering into his shop. The meal, which Mifflin christens “Eggs Samuel Butler,” echoes those simple wartime repasts of only a year or two before. And as the two men enjoy Mifflin’s culinary creation, they discuss how literature could help prevent another such world catastrophe. Mifflin believes that peace can only come about once Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts becomes required reading. In reference to an upcoming peace conference, Mifflin proposes that “if every delegate to the Peace Conference could be made to read it [The Dynasts] before the sessions begin, there will be no more wars.” Mifflin even goes so far as to hypothesize that “if enough thoughtful Germans had read The Dynasts before July, 1914, there would have been no war.”

Whether Hardy’s novel could have prevented the Great War is up for debate, but there is no question that Eggs Samuel Butler is a tasty dish. “The apotheosis of hen fruit,” as Mifflin calls his invention, Eggs Samuel Butler is quite simple to prepare. Intended “for the notebook of housewives,” the recipe is generously provided for the reader, which is as follows: “A pyramid, based upon toast, whereof the chief masonries are a flake of bacon, an egg poached to firmness, a wreath of mushrooms, a cap-sheaf of red peppers; the whole dribbled with a warm pink sauce of which the inventor retains the secret.” A more exact version of the recipe can be found below. Mifflin suggests serving Eggs Samuel Butler with a nice “California catawba,” and finishing the meal with a dessert of “apple sauce, gingerbread, and coffee.”

Eggs Samuel Butler

8 slices of toast
4 eggs, poached
1 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced
3 red peppers, diced
1/2 pound bacon, cooked until crisp
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Fry the mushrooms in olive oil and butter in a large pan. Add the red peppers and cook until soft. In separate pan fry the bacon until crisp. Poach eggs. On each plate, place two slices of toast. Place three or four slices of bacon on each slice of toast, then an egg, mushrooms and top with the red peppers. Serve covered with a hollandaise sauce favored with paprika, if desired.

Virginia Batter Bread

Here’s a delightful wartime recipe for Virginia Batter Bread from Mrs. Robert S. Bradley’s Cook Book: Helpful Recipes for War Time (1917). Mrs. Bradley urges the reader to practice the most careful economy when it comes to foodstuffs: “There is need,” she writes, “for every form of economy that will save an ounce of food, and every cook is drafted to this universal service.” She urges the reader to follow “Hoover’s Rules” for economy:

1. Save the Wheat.
2. Save the Meat.
3. Save the Milk.
4. Save the Fats.
5. Save the Sugar.
6. Save the Fuel.
7. Use the Perishable Foods.
8. Use Local Supplies.

Certainly Mrs. Bradley’s recipe for Virginia Batter Bread is representative of the economy that should be practiced in the wartime kitchen (though, it is a bit heavy on the dairy). Below is the recipe as it appears in her book.

Virginia Batter Bread

1 cup boiled rice
1 pint milk
1/2 pint Southern white corn meal
2 eggs
Piece of butter a size of an egg
Pinch of salt

The batter should be put with the rice when boiled and drained and still hot. Use when cold. Beat the other ingredients together then beat in the rice. Pour the mixture into a greased baking dish and bake one hour. Serve hot.