Sunday, September 30, 2012

Great Scot: Oatmeal Gets Its Due

Professor John McNeil, who is about 93-years-old and long retired from the Department of Education at UCLA, still arrives on campus around 5:30 a.m., walks the track, and has his breakfast at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, a meal which often consists of oatmeal. He shared the story of the British lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who traveled to Scotland with his friend and intellectual sparring partner James Boswell, a Scottish lawyer, author, and diarist.

Desk set: Trader Joe's Steel-Cut Oats with
Rosemary Marcona Almonds and Greek yogurt

Johnson turned his nose up at the Scots' fondness for oatmeal, and in his "Dictionary of the English Language" which was published in 1755, he defined oats as "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland, appears to support the people." In Boswell's biography of Johnson, Patrick Murray, the 1st Lord Elibank, was credited with the retort, "Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?"

Oats are deeply ingrained (pun intended) in Scottish cuisine as a staple, being better suited than wheat to the country's short and wet growing season. It is used as a coating for Caboc cheese and is a main ingredient for such delicacies as black pudding, skirlie, and haggis. For less adventurous palates, oats are used in the baking of bannocks or oatcakes, a stylish and tasty alternative that my friend and hostess-with-the-mostest Linda Capelli Pierce, adds to one of her celebrated cheese plates.

While the colorful 1943 ditty tells us that
"Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats," it doesn't
explain how mares and does balance a spoon
between their hooves.

According to Wikipedia, ancient universities of Scotland observed a holiday called Meal Monday to permit students to return to their farms and collect more oats for food. Access to a steaming cup o' the "parritch" is a lot simpler for us at UCLA. Just about every morning pit stop en route to campus offers the warming and healthy cereal, including Peet's Coffee and Tea, McDonald's, and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. With more moxie than a McMuffin and more brawn than a bagel, oats in either the instant or the steel-cut variety also provide a good source of B-complex vitamins, iron, and protein. In addition, a well-known health fact about oatmeal is its ability to help lower cholesterol levels as an excellent source of fiber.

My foodie friend Anna brings her steel-cut oatmeal from home and covers it with fresh berries, a colorful and nutritious morning repast. I was addicted to the blackberry-blueberry sauced version at Jamba Juice, and will fall back on that when in a hurry. But when feeling creative, I whip up Trader Joe's Steel-Cut Oatmeal in Ye Olde Microwave - much easier than stirring it on the stove, and it comes out the same! - and add a variety of toppings depending on what's in my office "pantry."

I'm not a big fan of milk, so I add Fage Greek 0% plain yogurt for needed moisture, and top it off with sliced fresh plums or a sprinkling of TJ's Rosemary Marcona Almonds for a bit of crunch and pine-nut-like zing. But the most decadent topping I came up with seemed the most obvious: chopped dark chocolate with trail mix. It's like having oatmeal cookies for breakfast. Bananas would also work well for those mornings when nothing will do for breakfast but dessert.

Berry photogenic: Anna's oatmeal with
summer fruit. Photo by Anna Hoang

Professor McNeil grew up in Cherokee, Iowa, a small town center for local farmers. His father, George McNeil, was a homesteader, among the first to settle the Iowa prairie in 1880. His mother Elizabeth McCulloch, emigrated from a farm in Highlands Invergorden, Rossshire, Scotland, where she doubtless developed her love of oats.

Over a breakfast of oatmeal at Corner Bakery in Westwood, McNeil and I discussed the issues of the day and what was new on campus. Since I often eat on the fly during the workweek, this was a doubly nourishing repast. Cold oats would not typically sound appealing, but the bowl of chilled Swiss muesli with yogurt and plenty of chopped apples and raisins was delicious. And I didn't have to worry about it getting cold as we chatted, the conversation being the most fortifying element of my morning meal.

Chilled Swiss muesli at Corner Bakery.
Professor McNeil said that when he was a boy, his mother offered him anything he wanted for breakfast - pancakes, bacon, the works - as long as he ate his oatmeal first.

"I was so full after that, I didn't want anything else," he recalls.

I had told Professor McNeil about an editorial on the current disparity between male and female success - at least in the United States - that I have aired in several discussions lately. In it, David Brooks contends that men have not done as well as women in educational and economic arenas lately, largely because of their tendency to adhere to old standards of what is masculine, whereas women have adapted in much the same way that immigrants to a new country do in order to fit in.

George McNeil adapted to the changing economy in the Midwest, and explored the growing railroad industry along with his own attempts at farming and ranching before opening a merchandising business that folded with the advent of the Depression that ultimately influenced the family’s move to the West Coast.

While raising Professor McNeil and his sister, his mother served as a reporter for the town's newspaper. He remembers her immediate response to local events and catastrophes, and even accompanying her on interviews of the town’s personalities.

“Perhaps because of her, I never doubted what women can accomplish,” McNeil wrote to me in an email, reflecting on our talk – and perhaps of being hoodwinked out of a laboriously prepared breakfast by a busy mother!

Morning glory: Professor John McNeil
and his oatmeal at Corner Bakery.

Despite Professor McNeil's healthy breakfast of oatmeal, he often eats dessert for lunch. When I've joined him at the Faculty Center for the midday meal, he dines on a goblet of blackberries and a slice of the cake du jour. I tried to get him to eat something more substantial, but let's face it - once you reach his age, you can pretty much have anything you damned well please. I shudder to think what he has for dinner. But whatever Professor McNeil is eating, it appears to be working. My friend may well have discovered the Fountain of Youth.

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