Norwegian Oatmeal Porridge

The ancestor of our humble oat was a wild and uncouth relative that grew in southern Europe and western Asia. Used for animal fodder and as an ingredient in hearty dishes and baked goods, wild–and later cultivated–oats provided sustenance for Europe’s rural poor.

The Norwegians for instance consumed fish and oatmeal porridge; an ancient saga tells of a hero’s enjoyment of this dish before leaving his home: “Before I left my home, ate I in peace fish and oatmeal,” he says. The more humble folk also enjoyed some variation of this dish, partaking of it in numerous guises throughout the day. Alfred Heaton Cooper in his book The Norwegian Fjords (1907) tells us that the average Norwegian peasant followed the following daily gustatory routine: “At 6 a.m., oatmeal cake or potato cake and buttermilk; at 8 a.m.–the chief meal of the day –is served fish, and boiled, salted, or dried mutton with potatoes; at 12 midday, oatmeal porridge and buttermilk; at 4 p.m., dried, smoked, or salted fish with potatoes and buttermilk; at 8 p.m., oatmeal porridge and milk.” Though variety was lacking in this austere Nordic diet, the meals were filling and nourishing, especially when in the warmer spring and summer months vegetables were added to the menu.

Claude Monet, Oat and Poppy Fields, 1890


Here’s an 1888 recipe for Norwegian oatmeal porridge. Serve it with cream and brown sugar or as a side for more savory dishes.

Norwegian Oatmeal Porridge

Johnny Cakes

“Small, poor rations again today in the shape of corn bread and peas,” complained a settler of the Allamakee County, Iowa. Though the Allamakee settler looked upon his rations of cornbread and peas in disgust, bread made from cornmeal did play a important role in the diets of the early American settlers and was frequently cited as being quite tasty. The pioneers of the Ohio Valley used cornmeal as their common “bread-stuff,” grinding it with a pestle in a wooden mortar. This roughly ground cornmeal was often prepared as johnny-cakes–a term that is a corruption of “journey-cakes.” The cakes were mixed with rye and lard and baked before the fire on a “johnny” board about two feet long and eight inches wide. In Kentucky, they did things a bit differently: slaves would bake their cornmeal on a hoe and called the finished product hoe cakes.

In My Australian Girlhood, Sketches and Impressions of Bush Life (1902) Mrs. Campbell Praed describes the preparation of johnny cakes in the bush. “First, you must cut a small sheet of bark from a gum tree near,” she writes, “heap on it a mound of flour, in which you must hollow a hole and fill it with water, then work up the mass into a dry dough, which you must cut into thin cakes.” A large part of the art, according to Mrs. Praed, lies in preparing the fire: “For if the ashes be not properly prepared, the Johnny-cake will be heavy and no longer a Johnny-cake; it is then a ‘Leather-jacket,’ or it is a ‘Beggar on coals,’ when little bits of the sticks are turned into charcoal and make black marks on the dough.”

An 1890 illustration from the tale of little Johnny-Cake


Here’s an 1841 recipe for johnny cakes from The American Housewife. Serve them with butter and maple syrup, or alongside more savory dishes. Just be careful not to bake yourself the dreaded “Leather-jacket”!

Johnny Cakes

Scald a quart of sifted Indian meal [corn meal] with sufficient water to make it a very thick batter. Stir in two or three teaspoonfuls of salt — mould it with the hand into small cakes. In order to mould them up, it will be necessary to rub a good deal of flour on the hands, to prevent their sticking. Fry them in nearly fat enough to cover them. When brown on the underside, they should be turned. It takes about twenty minutes to cook them. When cooked, split and butter them. Another way of making them, which is nice, is to scald the Indian meal, and put in saleratus [baking soda], dissolved in milk and salt, in the proportion of a teaspoonful of each to a quart of meal. Add two or three tablespoons of wheat flour, and drop the batter by large spoonfuls into a frying pan. The batter should be of a very thick consistency, and there should be just fat enough in the frying pan to prevent the cakes sticking to it.

More Wartime Cooking: Wheatless Fruit Tarts

Mary Elizabeth was convinced she could develop an entire repertoire of wartime wheatless and sugarless recipes. Her 1918 Mary Elizabeth’s War Time Recipes testifies to the success of her endeavor — the cookbook is filled with dozens of delightful recipes that eschew wheat, sugar and meat. “I am gathering these recipes,” she writes, “that they may help some folks who have the same earnest desire as myself to aid the Food Administration in every way but lack the facilities and time to work out their own recipes.”

Here’s a summer recipe from Mary Elizabeth’s cookbook for a wheatless fruit tart. It uses barley flour as a substitute for wheat, which results in a wonderfully flaky crust. Containing all eight amino acids, barley flour also packs a powerful nutritional punch.

Wheatless Fruit Tarts

1 1/2 cups barley flour
1/2 cup corn flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup hard vegetable shortening
4 tablespoons ice-cold water

Sift the two flours and salt together; cut into it the shortening, using a knife, until it is in tiny bits. Then rub together lightly with the hands until all the ingredients are well blended. Now add the water, mixing as little as possible.

Mold into a ball. Place on a well-floured bread-board. Roll thin, using a little flour on the rolling pin. Cut with a large biscuit-cutter and place over bottoms of muffin tins. Bake in a hot oven until light brown. When cold, fill the shells with fruit filling.

Fruit Filling for Tarts

Use rhubarb, strawberries, cherries, raspberries or currants. Canned fruit may be used in winter, but as they are sweetened, reduce the sugar quantity by one half.

1 quart fruit (any of the above varieties)
1 cup maple sugar (crushed)
1/4 cup water
3 level tablespoons corn starch

Boil until the fruit is tender. Then add three level tablespoons of cornstarch, dissolved in a tablespoon of water. Boil slowly, stirring constantly, for able five minutes longer. When cold, fill the tart molds and serve.