WHEN I was but a little lad, I
wrote to a genial-looking giant of a chap called Charles Atlas, an
advertisement about whom I saw in a newspaper. He seemed to be offering me
a no-quibble guarantee that if I did his exercises he could transform me
from an ink-stained, bespectacled weakling into a pocket Hercules, the
backs of whose hands would brush menacingly along the ground as he walked
and who could, for a freak, bend iron bars around his neck.
body-building course cost me about a year’s pocket money, but later I
wrote back stating: "Dear Mr Atlas. I’ve read your book. Please send me
the muscles." I never got them. Exercise as I did, I remained a small,
Lowry-type blob of scholastic angularity in Edinburgh’s Newington
As a youth, I bought a muscle-developing device
consisting of two hand-grips linked to stretchable metal coils with which,
following a booklet’s illustrated instructions, I bulged what I
despairingly dubbed my biceps and made my pigmy pectorals quiver as in one
doing the rumba. The device could also be attached to a wall and the coils
pulled in an arm-aching, trudgen crawl movement.
sizeable chunk of my bedroom plaster crashed to the floor, my mother
banned further body-building, saying she preferred me as a non-destructive
I did not give up attempts to fortify myself against
the rigours of Scottish life, the wind and the rain and the cold, but
often bracing douche of its education. There was good stuff in me and more
going in every morning in the shape of steaming bowlfuls of porridge, a
substance as vital to the physical, if not moral well-being of the Scots
as chicken soup is to Jews and spinach to Popeye.
familiar with the life of Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian and
essayist, will know that he piled porridge into himself with the alacrity
of stokers shovelling coal in old steam-ships. His tempestuous works,
fuelled by inspirational spoonfuls, may be hard to swallow now but, once,
they were flavours of the months for Victorians.
were heroic porridge-eaters, not in Carlylean quantities or those given to
Geordie, in the eponymous 1955 film, to build up a strip-ling into a
muscular, Olympics’ hammer-thrower but in sufficient amounts to keep our
vital physical and mental sparks flickering.
The porridge that glued us
together as a family was not the kind sold nowadays in the box showing the
kilted Celt but with coarse oatmeal steeped overnight in water and when
cooked to around the temperature of mid-day on the planet Mercury and
served with full cream milk, it was like nectar fit for gods or righteous,
hardy, rain-repellent, mould-resistant inhabitants of the land of mountain
Confirmation of porridge as a top breakfast
energy-booster comes in a study by researchers at Loughborough University,
Leicestershire, which states that it burns fat more quickly and prolongs
energy levels more efficiently than certain sports’ drinks.
Physiologists studied the effect of different foods on blood sugar levels,
ranking these on a scale called the glycaemic index (GI) of one to 100.
best foods for endurance and stamina were those that raised blood sugar
steadily over several hours. These had low ratings of between 15 and 54
with porridge among those with low to moderate GI.
porridgers probably suspected as much. The dish is gravid with goodness
but there are many ways of making it more palatable to particular tastes.
Some ardent spirits favour a dash of whisky with it and the 1795
Statistical Account of Scotland revealed that the porridge of the "labouring
people" was made of oats, milk and beer.
According to some culinary
sources, the dish should, when cooking, be stirred with a stick called a
spurtle and be served neat with each spoonful dipped into a separate bowl
of milk on its way to the mouth.
A British upper class custom was
to eat porridge standing up, a possibly-respectful gesture that strikes me
as tasteless and on a par with adding sugar or even honey to it.
Salt, in my
essentially-biased view, is the only condiment that evokes the true stern
and steely, warm and worthy character of an otherwise dietary-deficient
"The halesome parritch, chief o Scotia’s food,"
wrote Robert Burns. He said a mouthful.