There is nothing in the world quite like a piping hot bowl of oatmeal cereal on a cold winter morning. During warmer weather, Greg and I typically dine on a combination of flakes, slivered almonds, raw pumpkin seeds and raisins. The content of our warm weather cereal bowls is never quite the same and varies from day to day depending on what happens to be on our shelves, though it is always a variation of the same theme.

But oh, on cold winter mornings, it is with great anticipation that I reach instead for the cardboard canister of rolled oats, and yes, it does occur to me that a boiling pot of oatmeal helps to quickly warm the cabin, as well as the hot cereal most certainly warms our bellies.

As I stand at the stove and stir the oatmeal, I am ever so careful not to let it boil over. I am patient, and never mind waiting the requisite number of minutes until the water has boiled down, because as I stir, I think of my father, the very best oatmeal maker I have ever known.

Dad was never one to cook, and when, by chance, our mother would ask him to prepare lunch or dinner for my brother and me, he always served us canned fish, sardines on saltine crackers, kippered herring on thin slices of pumpernickel and even anchovies straight from the can. Dad explained to us that his love of canned fish related back to his longshoreman days.

I suppose that it is no surprise that I still have a fondness for canned fish. Curiously, Greg does not share in my liking.

The only times that I recall our father actually cooking, however, was when he prepared breakfast, and I now, as I stand over my own wintertime stove, I feel warmly wrapped in his love to think of him, years ago, standing in our kitchen and stirring a bubbling pot of oatmeal. I remember that our cabinets were always stocked with several red, white and blue canisters of steel cut, rolled oats.

I have often wondered why Dad always had such a surplus on hand. It was not as though our neighbors stopped by for breakfast, but I never asked.

And yes, there are times, when Greg and I have been out and about, that I have sampled oatmeal prepared by others, but it is typically a tasteless mass of mushy stuff, nothing like my father’s. Dad’s oatmeal was always wonderfully flavorful. Each individual oat was tastefully crisp with an
almost nutty flavor.

I remember when I was a child, I would sit at the breakfast table and watch as Dad placed a perfect pile of steaming oats in the center of my bowl, and how he would then sprinkle a spoonful of brown sugar across the top of the mound. I still treasure the way the brown sugar melts into the
hot grain. And oh, how I look forward to savoring the contrasting temperatures of fresh cold milk, straight from the fridge, that is carefully poured around the sides of the bowl, so that a white moat encircles the hot mound of cereal in the bowl’s center.

When my father grew older he could hardly walk, even with the assistance of a cane, and even though his memory had begun to fade, we would simply sit and spend hours talking of times long past. One day, I asked him to share his secret of preparing the perfect bowl of hot oatmeal. I remember the way he smiled and stood unsteadily up from his chair. “Follow me,” he said, and I followed.

We walked into his small efficiency kitchen, and I watched as he reached up into a cabinet and took a canister down. I could see several more of the circular cardboard boxes all lined up, side by side, in a neat row. He turned the canister over in his hands and tapped his finger against the
side. “Here, dear. The recipe is perfectly written, right here.” He put the canister back and turned to me with a smile as he put his finger up to his lips, “Shhh ... don’t tell a soul.”

Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio.