These Were Considered Treats

And the guy behind one snack had some peculiar ideas

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A Porridge They Wrote Poems About

By Julia Skinner

Ancient Romans introduced the oat to Scotland, where it became a staple that now appears in everything from porridge to haggis to Atholl Brose, an oat-infused whiskey drink, as well as sowans, a food once critical to the Scottish diet.

Sowans is made from soaking and fermenting oat hulls (called “sids”). Unlike modern oat bran, traditionally milled oat hulls retain some of the grain’s starch, and when soaked in water, they ferment into several different products:

  • The pieces of hull, which are strained out of the sowans and used as livestock feed.

  • Swats, a nourishing, sour oat beverage made from the liquid that separates from the sowans. In some cases this is fermented longer than the sowans.

  • Sowans, a thick, sour paste in the bottom of the fermenting vessel, which could be consumed as a porridge or a drink, or used to make scones. 

Sowans is first documented in 1693, and we continue to see records of them through the 19th century, mentioned particularly as a health food. Robert Burns talks about buttered sowans (the more decadent version of sowans porridge) in his poem “Halloween.” Unfortunately, there seems to be less and less mention of them in the 20th century, likely due to industrial farming and milling operations reducing reliance on local millers. 

However, this magical porridge is still celebrated on Sowans Night (Christmas Eve) in Aberdeen, a nod to the old Highland tradition of serving sowans in bed on Christmas morning. Sowans were also enlisted in divining the future: On Halloween (and sometimes Yule as well), objects would be hidden in sowans; the one you found was said to predict your future: For example, a coin for wealth or a ring for marriage. Perhaps it’s time to revive this dish, both for a good meal and a little soothsaying. 🥣

Bibliography here.

Photo: Kenrick Mills

Graham Crackers Taste Good, Against the Inventor’s Wishes

By Greta Burroughs

S’mores are one of the main emblems of an American summer.  The chocolate and marshmallows are the main attraction tempting our taste buds, but it’s the humble Graham cracker holding everything together. If it wasn’t for that, we’d just have a melted pile of sweetness with no place to go.

We must thank Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), a Presbyterian minister, for the ingenious combination of ingredients which now bears his name. The original recipe for “Graham cakes” bears no resemblance to what we enjoy now, and the reasons for that are quite intriguing.

Rev. Graham was a social reformer and an advocate for “healthy living.” He preached that too much lustful living harmed the body and that excessive sexual activity caused ailments ranging from headaches and indigestion to pulmonary problems, spinal diseases, epilepsy and insanity. Graham believed that children conceived as a result of excessive sexual activity would fail to survive due to the weakened state of their parents.

Graham endorsed a strict high-fiber diet consisting mainly of unrefined wheat flour, fat and meat were strictly disallowed, the better to suppress those carnal urges. In addition, Graham discouraged the use of mustard and ketchup, since they caused insanity.

Surprisingly, Graham's doctrine was followed by a (small) number of people during the American “health craze” of the 1820s and ‘30s. His disciples confined themselves to Graham boarding houses in New York and Boston and adhered to the strict dietary regimen.

The Graham cakes made their grand entrance in that era. The Reverend wanted a special treat for his faithful friends, and meticulously perfected his recipe, made with unrefined wheat flour with no sugar or flavorings. It became a staple among his followers to round out the high fiber vegetarian diet. It must have been a hit. 

As with all fads, Sylvester Graham’s philosophy of healthy living fizzled out. But the Graham cakes lived on, though slightly modified. There is disagreement over who first concocted Graham crackers, but a recipe appeared in a cookbook in 1882.

The crackers we all know and love come from the National Biscuit Company, better known as Nabisco. They began marketing Graham crackers in the late 1800s. Their big success came in 1925, when the company introduced the Honey Maid line; the delicious cracker has remained popular since then.

Sylvester Graham probably spins in his grave every time his name is used to describe a sweet cookie-like treat made with refined white flour. But that’s what happens when your idea is improved upon. You spin from the beyond. 👀

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This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

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