A lifelong relationship with oats has taught Greg Bruce about much more than porridge.


remember reading or being read The Magic Porridge Pot at Pakuranga Heights Primary School and thinking, "That's the greatest story ever written." Its promise of endless porridge was my favourite fantasy and I have often thought about it since.

I would add a lot of brown sugar to my breakfast porridge in those days. Whenever the dark caramel patches were all gone, which was generally immediately after their creation, I would immediately add more.

I always dreaded dinner as a child - corned beef, chops, beans, boiled potatoes - and I felt no enthusiasm for lunch, which was purely functional. All my food joy came at breakfast and no joy was greater than porridge plus brown sugar.


I have a vague recollection of arguing with Mum about the quantities of sugar but she had three children and was a poor policewoman. I turned out all right, didn't I?

Nothing lasts forever. What took over? Coco Pops? Honey Puffs? Crunchy Nut Cornflakes? They all had their day, predictably enough.

It was a quarter century before I returned to porridge in any serious way. Why so long and what brought me back? Those are valid questions that I can't answer. Life does not yield its secrets so simply.

My wife - at that stage just an extremely attractive woman I was living with - started making porridge for breakfast the first winter we co-habited. I just piggybacked on it, presumably to save myself the effort. I only took over when she fell pregnant and started spending all her mornings lolling about in the toilet vomiting and groaning.

I can't remember whether it was her or me that started adding banana, walnuts and raisins but I want to believe it was me. I had never been able to cook, nor been able to see the appeal of cooking but, with the repetitious daily recreation of my porridge, that began to change.

I began to experiment, just as the chefs do on the creatively-inspirational Netflix series Chef's Table. A little more or less milk, adding the banana to the pot earlier or later, massively increasing the quantity of cinnamon. What I eventually created was basically a sweet, wet breakfast cake.

I became so good at it in the eyes of my wife, that when we went to stay with her friends in Christchurch, she forced me to get up early and make it for them. I had only ever made it for two people so I overestimated the amount of milk required for four and it took forever to reduce to the required texture. Eventually, sensing their boredom, I just had to get it on the table.

They were waiting, starving, in their dressing gowns. My anxiety and their expectations were so high by the time it was served, it was clear no good would come of it.

They hated it, maybe more than I hated myself. Did I continue making porridge after we returned home? Not that I remember. That was six years ago.

There's more to porridge than meets the eye.
There's more to porridge than meets the eye.

feel angry a lot of the time these days, about various things: the prospect of death in a global food crisis, the prospect of death in a global war with the United States, the general lack of kindness in the world, the blaming of individuals for system-level failures. I could go on, so I may as well: callousness, distrust, selfishness, egotism, death.

I'm definitely not saying I hanker for some idyllic past, because polio and colonialism weren't so great either but I do hanker for a simpler world: a stripping-back of the excess of life, layer by layer, until there's just something very pure and human left.

I have dabbled at various times with meditation, mindfulness, the reduction of life to a series of moments in which I'm fully present. This is not the type of thing I'm talking about.

What I'm talking about is this: If we strip away all that we deem desirable, can we find pleasure in what remains?

A year ago, as a post-lunch office snack, I tried a 10-sachet box of Harraways Chia, Coconut and Cranberry Celebration Oat Singles and I enjoyed it very much. However, when I discovered it was 20 per cent sugar, I became angry - angry and disillusioned. "This is bullcrap," I thought.

I switched to 10-sachet boxes of Harraways Original Oats, 100 per cent New Zealand oats, 0.8 per cent sugar, to which I added nothing. No sugar, no cranberries, coconut or chia, no pinch of salt or saffron, no banana, no sunflower seeds, no pumpkin seeds, no licorice root.

All I added was enough milk to microwave them into a moist, springy mass that cohered into a single, oaty supercontinent. I would then add more milk and take the bowl back to my desk, where I would use a dessert spoon to separate the mass into sub-continental chunks, the milk flowing between them like tiny oceans.

This dish involves two ingredients and one action - microwaving the pre-measured oats and milk.

There are no spikes of sensation in it. It is smooth and even. When I am making it, I don't feel excitable or naughty like a breakfast radio DJ; I feel calm and all-powerful, like Mike McRoberts.

It's such a dumb act to put sugar in food - not because it's unhealthy but because it's intellectually empty and creatively bereft. Of course sugar will make food taste good! Try harder!

The longer I spend eating unadorned porridge, the more I appreciate its subtleties: the depth and range of flavour and the texture of the grain.

The gelatinous squab of a mouthful of oats soaked in grass-fed cow's milk is a culinary wonder but that's not a discovery you can make right away. You must accept you have for too long demanded an intensity of sensation you only need because you keep being sold it and therefore keep demanding it. Develop your palate! Grow as a person! Stop seeking instant gratification!

I could so easily assail my pure porridge with the wild thrill ride afforded by a massed handful of craisins and a glob of honey - and for a while I wanted to. But for what? The activation of a slightly different pleasure centre in my brain?

We are not lab rats. Stop chasing these cheap thrills. We are being sold a false bill of goods.

So angry. So, so angry at what the world has become. And that is possibly why, after dinner, while watching Breaking Bad, I usually find myself eating one to two Woolworths brand Choccy Mints biscuits and - if I can stay awake long enough - a chunk of Donovan's Creamy Russian Fudge.