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Mr. Woodhouse Was Right: "A Nice Basin of Gruel Together" Indeed

December 30, 2021

by Dan Macey

Mr. Woodhouse's advocacy for gruel may not have been misplaced, as food historian Dan Macey explains in this short video. Get a virtual taste of a number of recipes and learn how your dinner guests might gleefully gush over a nice basin of gruel. Recipes included below. —Editor

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I was standing in my colonial-era britches and apron ladling out bowls of barley and raisin gruel in front of a hearth fire when a guest pleaded, “please sir, I want some more” We laughed at his attempt to mimic the famous line from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. But, then he added,” No, I’m serious.” 

It was then that I realized gruel gets a bad rap and that Mr. Woodhouse was probably on to something rather delicious. I started looking into the many forms of gruel served throughout the Georgian era and even earlier and learned that gruel was often doctored with rum, wine, port, fruits, honey, and even nuts. It was a comfort food and was prescribed for an abundance of ailments, and its variety and forms went way beyond ordinary oatmeal.

In fact, before Mr. Dickens made us conjure up the thin greyish blob of soggy oats served to orphans, gruel wasn’t considered gruel-ish at all. It could be prepared sweet or savory and was served to all classes of people.

It was a delight to take a look at all the references to gruel in Jane Austen’s work, put them into the context of her times and offer up my own take on gruel’s place in food history. 

Closed captioning in English can be turned on and off with the CC icon in the control panel.  Copyright Dan Macey.

The barley gruel I served was for a historic foodways program called, “What the Lesser Sort Ate,” and several guests actually asked for the recipe. Here is that recipe for your pleasure as well. It comes from The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary by John Knots, published in 1724. My goal is that you will never look at a bowl of oatmeal the same.

Enjoy and continue to taste history!

A very good Barley Gruel

Take three ounces of Pearl-Barley, of which makes a quart of barley-water; if it be not white, sift it once or twice; put in four ounces of currants, pick’d and wash’d, when they are plump’d, pour out the gruel, and let it cool a little, then put in the yolks of three eggs well beaten, half a pint of white wine, and of new thick cream half a pint and lemon peel; then sweeten it with fine sugar to your palate; stir it gently over the fire, till it is as thick as cream.

  Download more gruel recipes.

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Dan Macey is the president of the Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley in Philadelphia, which aims to keep culinary history alive. He has presented a variety of food history programs and demonstrations, including the recreation of an authentic regency era banquet to benefit Chawton House Library. He also writes about food history and was nominated for a national food writing award for penning a piece about mutton in Emma. He has contributed to a number of food history books, including the James Beard awarding winning The Oxford Companion to Cheese. He works as a professional, commercial food stylist, making food look beautiful for the camera. He is an enthusiastic life member of JASNA.