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The Great Norwegian Porridge Debate, Or Tradition Vs. 'Science'

Mar 9, 2018
Originally published on March 9, 2018 4:43 pm

When you talk about traditional Scandinavian foods, you end up talking about porridge. In a cold climate, only certain grains could thrive — namely barley and oats. Their warm mush was a building block of early Nordic foodways, and is still a staple.

Now, an everyday bowl of plain old grain mush hardly sounds controversial. But in the middle of the 19th century, Norway was gripped with a series of public debates that later became known as the Norwegian Porridge Feud. Really.

Before we get into the debate, let's talk porridge itself.

"Porridge has been one of the fundaments of Scandinavian food culture from prehistoric times until the 20th century," writes Henry Notaker in his book Food Culture in Scandinavia. "In some areas it was served two or three times a day, eventually as a thinner soup, or gruel."

Porridge was so important that there were special exemptions allowing people to cook it on religious holidays, even when other forms of work were banned.

Traditionally, Norwegians would take flour or grits of oats or barley (rice if they were fancier), and simmer it up with water to make a gruel. Then, at the end, cooks would stir in an additional measure of flour to finish the pot. And when we're talking Norwegian cooks, we're talking about women.

But in 1864, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, writing under the pleasant-sounding pseudonum Clemens Bonifacius ("the gentle helper"), published a cookbook called Fornuftig Madstel (Sensible Cookery) which argued that the flour stirred in at the end was a misguided waste. Asbjørnsen maintained this uncooked flour went straight through the body without being used. He saw this not only as a loss to the farmer, but a loss to the economy of the country as a whole.

Even before this bold claim was made, culinary ethnologists Astri Riddervold and Andreas Ropeid say there were rumblings about overhauling domestic practices. While most cookbooks and domestic guides of the time had been from women who cited their own home experience, a new genre of books was emerging, written by male doctors who sought to replace folk wisdom with instruction in the evolving field of domestic science. And mind you, this was most definitely still evolving — opium and coca received the stamp of approval, and the jury was still out on whether whole grains helped or harmed.

On the pages of these books, the sides were clearly being staked. In Fornuftig Madstel, Asbjørnsen wasn't just suggesting a new breakfast recipe — he was stating that generations of traditional practice were wrong. And these were fighting words.

In the ensuing debate, many were on the side of European scientific progress. Others affirmed the thousands of years of porridge-making tradition, and said Asbjørnsen's entire book was an insult to the people of Norway.

The most vocal of these voices was Eilert Sundt, a theologist and sociologist who founded the sociological journal Folkevennen. In a series of articles, Sundt argued that the problem wasn't just Asbjørnsen's science — it was his entire approach of "porridge-splaining," instead of trusting the knowledge of women.

Riddervold and Ropeid say that Asbjørnsen ultimately had a significant impact on changes in the Norwegian diet — both positive (an increase in vegetables and fruits, and fresh meat and fish), as well as negative (an overly enthusiastic embrace of coffee, sugar, syrup and refined flour).

Luckily, porridge itself survived the controversy. In fact, according to modern Norwegian chef Andreas Viestad, "Porridge is having a revival actually, with inspirational cookbooks, porridge bars and a willingness to innovate. And this leads to a deeper appreciation of some of the traditional recipes as well."

And as for the traditional recipes themselves?

According to current scientists, despite Asbjørnsen's "scientific" arguments, the traditional practice of stirring in flour yielded a perfectly healthy porridge. Dietitian nutritionist Amy Myrdal Miller says that there are numerous variables — heat of the porridge, hydration ratios, grind size of the grain, etc.— but essentially, traditional home cooks were making a fully digestible product. "Hydrating the starch with hot water is essentially cooking the flour," Myrdal Miller explains.

And Stephen Scott Jones, director of Washington State University 's Bread Lab, notes that not only would the stirred-in flour have been digestible — it may also have been necessary. Especially if porridge was made from cracked grains of questionable quality. Which, if you're going back hundreds of years, was likely a safe bet.

"If the grains had been sprouted in the field [indicating a bad harvest year or years], the starches would have been converted to sugars prior to making the porridge and would never thicken," Jones explains.

He says the same goes for if the worst of grain was used, or if it was just a bad harvest year — both of which could also yield grain with a poor starch-to-protein-and-chaff ratio, which wouldn't thicken in the pot. But, Jones says, you could solve this problem of watery porridge by stirring in a last-minute handful of flour — as Norwegians had been doing for centuries.

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