Oats, and the Scots with them, bear for speakers of English the onns imposed on them by Dr. Johnson when, killing two birds with one stone, he defined the oats as "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."
Inconsistently in 1773, the opinionated doctor ate immoderately of sowans, the soured fermented inner shellings of this cereal, on the Island more plausible the explanation offered by Reay Tannahilatiating to mollify Johnson about the grain. However, he may have become reconciled to the Scots because he wrote later to Boswell, who has lured him into the visit to Scotland in the first place, "I will not send compliments to our friends by name . . . Tell them, as you see them, how well I speak of Scotch politeness and Scotch hospitality and Scotch beauty, and of everything Scotch, but Scotch oatcakes."
Oats have suffered a bad press for centuries. Pliny, writing of the Germans, who were dedicated oat eaters, asked disdainfully, "How can one eat the same food as animals?" He did admit that in central Europe, where oats serve both for porridge and bread (unleavened, because oat dough does not rise), the diet seemed to endow its eaters with good health. In medieval times, when classifying everything was a passion, oats were listed among coarse foods, and coarse foods, it was assumed, coarsened the characters of those who ate them.
"Cheese, milk and oatcakes," Paracelsus wrote, "cannot give one a subtle disposition." As late as the time of the Rev. Sydney Smith (1771-1845) we find a reference to Scotland as "that knuckle-end of England - that land of Calvin, oat-cakes and sulphur."
Contempt of the oat may have been born at the time when it was less a food than a nuisance. The oat is the Horatio Alger of cereals, which progressed if not from rags to riches, at least from weed to health food. Wild oats first forced themselves upon the attention of farmers by invading wheat or barley fields from which they were pulled and burned. The story is told that cattle were observed one day eating oats stacked up for burning. This gave their proprietor the idea of feeding the weeds to livestock. From there oats graduated to feeding humans. But the story is a little too pat to be true. I find more plausible the explanation offered by Reay Tannahill in "Food in History," which is that while wheat was capable of holding its own against oats in warm lowlands, at higher, cooler altitudes the oats tended to choke out the wheat, driving farmers to harvest the oats instead of the wheat.
The preference of oats for cool climates makes hash of the theory that they originated in the Mediterranean area. The fact is that in 1000 BC, oats were grown in Germany, Denmark and Switzerland but were unknown in the Near East. I suspect that they originated in, or not far from, northern Germany.
They had time to spread southward before classical times for they were being eaten in northern Europe, perhaps still in wild form, in Neolithic times. They were cultivated in central Europe in the Bronze Age. Oats reached Britain in the Iron Age, the epoch of the expanding La Tene culture which also could have carried oats toward the Mediterranean.
Despite the Roman disdain of oats, the Greeks had a dessert called plakous, a cake of oat flour, cheese and honey. I suspect oatmeal porridge was an ingredient of the sacred drink kykeon, which initiates to the Eleusinian mysteries were required to swallow with the apparent intention that the experience should be memorable rather than agreeable.
Even today oats are not important in the Mediterranean basin. North Africa and, to a certain extent, East Africa, make considerable use of this grain - a warm climate species that did not exist before our era. But one suspects it is because oats are able to extract nutrients from a soil in which wheat or barley would starve. On the European shores of the Mediterranean, the cultivation of oats is negligible.
Despised or not, oats have played an important role in human nutrition. It is true that their primary role is to feed animals, particularly horses, who take to them with particular avidity. Thus at about the time of the Crusades, when crop rotation was being practiced in central Europe for the first time (oats are particulary suitable as a rotation crop), the increase in the availability of oats encouraged an increase also in the use of horses. This expanded the peasants' area of operation - previously they had been unable to establish themselves farther from marketing centers than they or their oxen could walk, round trip, in a single day. The horse was faster, so the locations of farm villages were altered.
Oatmeal remained popular, or at least useful, through medieval times because a great deal of the food was heavily salted to preserve it. The cook's problem was to get rid of enough salt to make dishes palatable. When it was discovered that oatmeal absorbs salt, it became common practice to hang a muslin bag full of oatmeal in the kettle in which salted foods were boiling. When the bag was removed, a good deal of the salt left with it.
The people who felt the greatest affinity for oats were Celts, first of all the Scots. An old Scottish cookbook calls the oat "one of the sweetest grains to cook with." It is, in any case, the Scots who have rung the most changes on oats and have even developed a special vocabulary to deal with them. Corn, which stands in English-speaking areas for the most-used grain in each, mean oats in Scotland. The stick with which the batter for oatcakes is stirred is known as a spurtle and the utensil on which they cooked is not a griddle but a girdle . The bannock is an oatcake too large for convenient handling by a single eater, so it is broken into quarters known as farls . Brose is raw or toasted oatmeal over which some boiling liquid is poured. Oatmeal, naturally, goes into haggis .
Scots have a ritual for eating oatmeal that reaches into their history. In 1786, Hartolome Faujas de St. Fonda, a French visitor to the Isie of Ulva, described this national dish a sort fo pap oatmeal and water. "In eating this thick pap, each spoonful is plunged alternately into cream, which is always alongside." This remains the traditional fashion for eating oatmeal in Scotland. Scots look upon those who sugar or pour milk over oats as effete. They put cream or milk in a separate bowl and dip each spoonful of oatmeal into it as they go along.
The Welsh take their oats in the form of brewis , oatmeal broth, or siot , oatcakes soaked in buttermilk. The Irish are confirmed oat eaters also, but if they have any special formula for dealing with them, I do not know about it. In France, where the Bretons are Celts too oatmeal is sometimes called "Breton gruel" because of the importance of oats in the diet of Britany.
The one part of France where oatmeal is relatively common is the central mountains. Oatmeal is a warming food in harsh high-altitude climates. This gave rise to an old custom in Upper Provence where a suitor made a ritual visit to a girl's family, during which oatmeal with grated cheese was served.
The young woman indicated the degree of her interest in the suit by sprinkling her cheese scantily or liberally on the oatmeal. If she had no interest in him at all, she slipped a few grains of oats into his pocket.
Some obstinate males refused to take the hint to absent themselves speedily. In this case, the young lady seized a brand from the fire and pointed the unlighted end at him.
This custom has probably disappeared with the open fireplace, but when a girl today rejects a suitor, they still say, "Shegave him the oats."