Eating oatmeal in the summer might not seem as appealing as market berries and granola or an omelette made with fresh asparagus. But I always associate hot oatmeal with summertime spent in South Carolina at my grandma's lake house.
My grandma is from The South, capital T, capital S. She was raised in Alabama and moved to Chicago when she was 14 to escape rural life, bringing her roots along in her stubborn ways and slight southern drawl. She would babysit me as little kid and make oatmeal for breakfast in Naperville, where she had a big house. And later, a bigger house on a big lake in Seneca, South Carolina, where she moved when I was ten.
Her oatmeal was MAGICAL. No other oatmeal could compare. Creamy, rich, not dry but not runny, and just a little sweet. I begged her to teach me the recipe. She would smile coyly, saying it was her secret. When she announced she was moving back south, I was devastated. As only a single-minded child could lament: who was going to make my oatmeal?? As only a tricky grandparent could respond: if I wanted her oatmeal, I'd have to visit.
So I did. I loved my grandma's lake house. My grandpa Jack drove a golf cart to retrieve the mail, taking me along for the joyride. My brother and I would swim off their dock, donning orange life jackets and floating off to the deeper parts of the lake. We’d wander the shoreline looking for shiny pieces of mica, or fool's gold as my grandma called it, buried in the sandy floor just beneath the water's surface. Summer there was as sweet as the iced tea I drank out of mason jars.
But my most cherished memory exists in eating that oatmeal in the mornings on her deck overlooking Lake Keowee. It didn't matter that the hot sun was blazing on my already sunburned skin by 9am. I ate my hot oatmeal, and looked at the lake, and was happy.
My grandma moved back to Chicago a few years ago during the health decline of her husband and stayed to be closer to her children following his death. I've been spending time getting to know her and her story as an adult. As it turns out, she also makes fierce fried chicken, collard greens and biscuits. I actually never knew she cooked anything except oatmeal. (As a side note - really?? How have I gone this long, even after opening a goddamn fried chicken restaurant, and not been aware of my grandma's southern cookery? Good grief. Recipe swap happening soon.)
Anyway, back to the oatmeal. We stopped going to S.C. as I pushed into high school life, but I stayed in touch with my grandma via letters. When I was in college, after years of trying and failing to recreate her recipe, I finally coaxed the secret out. Ready for it... Coffee-mate. Yeah, that's right. She put fucking non-dairy creamer in the oatmeal and that's what made it so good.
I felt like an absolute fool when she told me. Because, like the fool's gold I searched for in the lake, Coffee-mate is not the real thing. But I don’t care. I still recall how much those things meant to me. The fool's gold and the oatmeal secret are priceless. Symbolizing the experiences of being young -- reminders of summers spent finding fool's gold and being fooled by my grandma's oatmeal.
My chefy palette has evolved enough that I find corn syrupy things off-putting, so I can’t bring myself to c-mate my oatmeal anymore. A quest to create a less processed, yet grandma memory friendly, version yielded the combo discovery of coconut milk and vanilla extract. The flavors work, texture and creaminess are replicated to the best of my abilities, magic achieved. And it fools me enough to think I’m eating the oatmeal of my youth.
And who knows. Maybe someday, kids will flock to my lake house to be captivated by my version of magical oatmeal.
Guidelines: Fool's Oatmeal
My grandma used plain ol' rolled oats. You can also use steel cut oats, Baker Miller in Chicago is an excellent source. Steel cut oats are probably more nutritious, and have a great toothsome texture, but I still prefer the rolled oats option because of magic grandma stuff.
Add oats and a pinch of salt to cold water in a small pot on the stovetop. Exact measurements are usually found on oats packaging but generally: one part oats to two parts water for rolled and one part oats to four parts water for steel cut.
Simmer the oats and water on low heat, stirring occasionally. Once the oats have soaked up the water and thickened (about 5-10 minutes for rolled and 20-30 minutes for steel cut), stir in a little splash of vanilla extract.
Once the oatmeal is off the heat and in a bowl, add a drizzle of coconut milk and small knob of butter. I'd say about 1 Tablespoon of coconut milk and 1 teaspoon of butter per serving, but adjust to your tastes. The butter gets all melty and mixes with the coconut milk, which is so lovely. Add a little sugar or honey if you like your oatmeal sweetened.
Oatmeal is best enjoyed overlooking a body of water. Otherwise, any room with a view of outside will do. There's something about eating oatmeal while watching the outdoors that does a body/mind/soul good.
If you have access to places that have fool's gold, go have some kid fun finding it.