Receiving comfort like cold porridge

As I age, I find that some food just doesn’t agree with me anymore; I’m sure I’m not alone in this because we all have different tastes. Different sensibilities. Yet, while I am an avid consumer of the Nutrition Facts labels on many food products, I read them not for inspiration or unerring wisdom -they are neither sacred, nor infallible- but as an ever changing guide to the dietary zeitgeist.

Actually, I do not care how much vitamin A or thiamine my quotidial breakfast 12 grain bagel contains, and whether or not it sports a soupçon of Zinc or an iota of Phosphorus, let alone a whiff of Pantothenate is of little concern to me. And anyway, I don’t trust the column that asserts, with an authority spookily reminiscent of a Biblical pronouncement, what percentage of the daily dietary requirement each represents. If I’m honest, I only turn to the information label to find out how much sugar it contains (sugar gives me headaches), and how much gas -sorry, fibre- that I and others are going to have to put up with.

I have no idea whether all fibres are equally effective in doing what they’re supposed to do or whether the bacteria hiding in my personal intestines will be happy with my choice; for all I know, much of what I see listed could actually be a mug’s game. And anyway, I get the impression that fibre is something the body has trouble digesting -I’m not sure how good that is. I mean I imagine I’d also have trouble digesting sand, or whatever, but I never see sand listed in the ingredients part of the label. I suppose it could be in fine print along with the BHT content, and I simply missed it, though.

At any rate, every so often they (whoever ‘they’ are) change their minds. Remember the fuss about cholesterol, or fat in the diet? It seems to me, an admitted food virgin, that nutritional epidemiology is probably to blame. That’s where health outcomes are compared with diets of suitably large groups so conclusions can be inferred. Unfortunately, I suspect it can also find associations that may be due more to chance than good governance.

Like the one about the prevalence of heart disease among those who are prone to sitting on the couch and eating potato chips -well, it was something like that, anyway. It wasn’t until high school that I learned that association was not causation, so until my Grade 9 Health Class set me straight, I was pretty sure that kissing led to unwanted pregnancies. Okay, I didn’t want to take the chance that it might… But I think I digress.

I’m only trying to point out that it’s far easier to infer something (or is it imply? The Health Class was vague on that) than to do double-blind control studies with food. And anyway, the end points being measured -the length and quality of life, plus the ability to continue performing well on Sudoku- are years in the future. Sometimes, association is all we have to go on.

My mother was good at that. On cold winter mornings on the prairies when I was a kid, there was little incentive to emerge from under the warm Hudson’s Bay Blankets on a weekend -there probably still isn’t, come to think of it.

But after a few exasperated calls from the kitchen, and the threat that if I didn’t get up and come to breakfast right NOW, everything would be cold, I would eventually show up. There’s absolutely nothing like cold porridge -milk, yes; sausages, well, okay; but cold porridge was inedible no matter how much brown sugar I would try to sneak under the otherwise tasteless lumps while her head was turned.

Eventually, as age and wisdom fertilized my curiosity, I remembered once questioning the need for porridge every morning in the winter. I’m not really sure what I expected -we always had porridge in the winter; I didn’t know anything else. I still didn’t much like porridge, though.

But my mother was equal to the challenge. “Because it’s good for you, G,” was her automatic, unthinking reply.

I thought of countering with a question about ‘why just in winter, then’, but I decided that any answer would likely not be in my best interests. I decided, instead, on “Why is it good for you?” I figured that would stump her.

I saw a  twinkle in her eyes and a wry smile beginning to unfold on her lips. “Your brother used to eat porridge all winter long and now look how tall he is.” A satisfied, look appeared on her face and she turned back to the sink; my mother and father were both short people like me, so she seemed pleased to have satisfactorily explained his ungainly height. It was an unfair comparison, though, since he was ten years older than me and anyway was away with friends for the weekend. He was probably eating bacon and eggs -if he was even up at all.

“Porridge does that, G. -it sticks to the ribs,” she’d say and then, with a wink, tell me it was “only logical -a scientifically proven fact,” she’d add to prop up her contention. In those days though, you didn’t have to provide references even if asked.

I suppose it’s only once you hit high school, that you begin to understand the folly of inductive logic; I was in Grade three at the time, however, and I wasn’t entirely sure we’d ever actually taken Logic. But even then, I vaguely sensed that just because X sometimes caused Y, it didn’t always. In fact, I kind of put my brother’s height more down to all the chocolate bars he bought during his newspaper delivery route, than to the porridge he’d promptly feed to the dog whenever my mother left the room. Or maybe it was his hormones -who knew what they were doing over at his friend’s house?

At any rate, I don’t remember seeing Nutrition Facts labels on the porridge packages in those days, just that smiling Quaker guy with the scarf, the long wavy white hair, and the big black hat; you didn’t really need a government-approved appraisal of the contents and how much of it you should consume each day. It was fairly obvious that somebody like the Quaker man would never sell you anything that wasn’t good for you. And anyway, my mother seemed to trust him…

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