I have a soft spot for ritual. Not habits or routines, but the special actions we perform again and again that make us as we are.
My Great-Grandma Emmy, for example, would take toast and tea each night as part of her evening ritual. Two hot buttered slices of white toast and milky black tea in a fine-bone china cup and rattling saucer. She said it gave her good constitution. Tea and toast prevented ailments and made her strong. I never doubted it.
Every Friday when I was little, my dad brought mom three bunches of carnations wrapped in sturdy market paper. The stems were bound together with elastics. Mom carefully unwrapped her flowers, trimmed the ends. Carnations are hardy, so she’d pick through last week’s vases. She’d keep what was good, add the new blooms, stir together fresh water and food. All into the same vases on the same shelves and side tables. It was a sourdough starter that she fed each Friday, of pink and red and white and purple-flecked flowers.
My sister Eleni eats ears of corn in perfect single rows, kernel by kernel, so attentively, it sometimes makes me want to scream. She has a way of plucking the entire kernel out, so as to leave the cob completely naked. It’s not like my own cob, a sodden mess of corn-bits and fibre. Each August, I watch her, half-expecting that she might dive in and attack to make up for her years of decorous nibbles. But it hasn’t happened in the twenty-two that I’ve known her. Eleni eats corn with purpose and finely tuned ritual.
Though I love examining rituals in others, I can’t name many of my own. There is one, but it’s hardly ritual at all: each night, about 30 minutes before I sleep, I wander about the apartment turning off lights. I tidy couch cushions. I turn on my bedroom lamp and turn down the covers. I prop up my pillows and pull whatever I’m currently reading from the shelf, until I’m sleepy, 20 or so pages later. And one other: each morning I count the squirrels. My walk to work takes me through Allan Gardens, and my little friends come and go with the weather. I know spring is here, because squirrels are everywhere this week, grey and black dots flitting through the grass.
I think ritual is one reason why I love to cook. Thomas Keller has said that we cooks always want to do new things in the kitchen, but really there isn’t anything new about our pursuits. Cooking is repetition, completing a task over and again to do it better, a delicious monotony. It’s rituals: chopping an onion, sharpening a knife, stirring a pot of risotto in wide circles. I like that the more I cook, and the more things that I cook, and the better I am as a cook – the basic rituals of chopping, heating, stirring, tasting and repeating are still at heart. They create my humble morning oats and also the most mind-bogglingly complex of dishes.
Oatmeal is one of those ritualistic foods we don’t give much attention to, I think. We eat it for its virtuousness – what is more wholesome and austere than a bowl of oats? But there is something about the flaked grains, and how they swell in liquid, universally accepting of other flavours. They fill the belly uniquely, comfortingly. I think for many people, oats as breakfast are an unintended ritual, a consequence of deep-down knowing what’s good for us. They are the best kind of consistency.
I make heaps of variations of oatmeal – sometimes with fruit or nuts, seeds, chocolate, cookies – so many mix-ins! Below is a method for my staple oats – for days when I’ve run out of bananas, don’t want to chop apples and have depleted my milk stores – and it may be the nicest version of all – fluffy and soft with bits of seed.
Having chia seeds in the cupboard and hempseed in the fridge is a worthwhile investment. These oatmeal additions are satiating, textural, full of good fats and round out a simple bowl of starch so nicely.
1/3c dry old-fashioned oats
~2/3c cool water
1Tbsp chia seeds, soaked in 3Tbsp water (see photo)
1Tbsp hulled hemp seeds (I like Ruth’s SoftHemp or Mum’s Original Hempseed)
1Tbsp nut butter (I like MaraNatha Raw Almond Butter)
1Tbsp raspberry jam (or your favourite kind)
In a pan, cook the oats and water to your desired consistency, about 5 minutes. While cooking, combine the chia seeds and water in a small bowl and stir well. Let them sit to form a thick gel. Remove the cooked oats from stove. While still warm, stir in almond butter, bloomed chia seeds and hempseed. Transfer to a bowl and top with jam. This is the most basic (but still delicious) version – you can dress it up with milk, fruit, coconut, nuts, seeds, chocolate… the possibilities are many.
(And yes – those are all my bowls of oats pictured above!)