The Golden Spurtle
My oats, cut by steel; my jeans, by boot
One day, a few months ago, I decided I would become an oats man. Oatmeal for breakfast. That sounded good to me. Steel-cut. The good stuff, you know.
I was aiming toward some vague sense of self-improvement, sure (no one becomes a huge nerd freak bitch because they want to). But I was also doing it because I had recently seen something sexy. It happened in the grocery store—from behind my damp, sweaty surgical mask, glasses fogged up, deep in the throes of the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, my eyes caught a glimpse of a can of Flahavan's Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal:
The damage was done. I had been seduced by Branding. And, possibly, more importantly, a need to gatekeep breakfast foods. An undeniably cool thing about this can of Flahavan's (which cost around $10) was that it was not a can of the much more popular McCann's Irish Steel Cut Oat Meal (which you can find at fucking Dover Street Market for $15).
Later that night, I sowed my wild oats (made a big batch of oatmeal for the week). Something that no one tells you about making steel-cut oats: it takes a shit-ton of time. I dutifully followed the recipe, using an absolutely reckless ratio of 4 cups of milk to 1 cup of oats, and stood at the stove for the next forty minutes, stirring and stirring and stirring, trying not to let the milk scorch or the oats stick. A pinch of salt was added at some point. My arm started to hurt. I missed a good chunk of what was happening in my episode of ZeroZeroZero (which is mostly in languages that are not English).
Eventually, I successfully made a big pot of oatmeal. I felt stupid. I had spent 45 mins—using a recipe—to make goddamn oatmeal. This is a thing people make and eat every day, something that occupies the same cultural space as "toast" in the arena of "interesting foods," and the muscle near my elbow was aching.
The next morning, I fired up YouTube and tossed out "flahavan's irish steel cut oats," for no real reason. I found this inexplicably pleasant video, which I have watched like 20 times by now.
There’s something eerily charming about this guy and his sotto Irish voce—his sweet saucepan, the “soft dropping consistency,” the breakfast tray, the idea that you would spend 25-30 minutes every morning stirring oatmeal on the stove. I love it! This guy should have been in Normal People instead.
What began as a casually tossed-off YouTube search, however, sent me into a deep spiral. This is how YouTube is supposed to work, obviously. And you really do have to give it up to those fuckers. Round of applause—everyone! Seriously! Let’s get after it, fam! Everyone stand up and clap for our big beefy boys! We love YouTube, don’t we, folks? Let’s appreciate them! Let’s prostrate to their creation, our new God, with undying love! Do it! Do it.
I ended up spending a couple of hours reading and watching everything I could about The Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship. Every year, in the wild, primal, third-world highlands of Scotland (fully developed nation), a global competition is held to answer the question humanity has yet to resolve: who can make the world’s best oats?
There are two categories: Traditional and Speciality. In the Speciality competition, contestants can add any ingredients they’d like to their bowl of oats, and are encouraged to get creative. In Traditional, the playing field is leveled to only three ingredients: steel-cut oats, water, and salt. They are judged (by whom? no idea) on “the consistency, taste and colour of the porridge and on the competitor’s hygiene in the cooking process.” The winner is awarded the titular Golden Spurtle, named after a long, thin rod that was developed in Scotland specifically to stir big vats of porridge, probably by people who looked like Strega Nona.
This is, objectively, sick as fuck. (And, for those of you asking at home—yes, the competition marches on this year! In a confounding modification, contestants will apparently send in videos of their Speciality entries, which no one will be able to judge on taste, of course, and the winner will be awarded the glorious title of “Virtual Spurtler 2020.”)
I can only dream of one day devoting myself to the mastery of something so pure and elemental as the alchemy of oats, water, salt, and heat. These people legitimately train to compete every year; they are driven by the relentless pursuit of perfecting a food whose long history has been diluted into easy-to-use, microwaveable packets; they have gazed out into the vast, endless fields of life and its accompanying journeys, taken stock of the infinite permutations of human existence, and zeroed in on “porridge.” I genuinely, deeply respect it.
Perhaps I was so enchanted by the Golden Spurtle because it lead me back to a recurring, alarming hobbyhorse of mine: the fact that we are so far removed now from everything we use or consume. If you gave me all the tools necessary to make a no. 2 yellow pencil, and then asked me to make a no. 2 yellow pencil, I don’t think I could do it. If you gave me all the tools necessary to plant and nurture and grow a lemon tree (a seed…?), and then asked me to plant and nurture and grow a lemon tree, I would get embarrassed and say I probably can’t. If you gave me all the tools necessary to farm an oat, and then asked me to farm an oat, I would say “What?” or “Is that even a thing? ‘Farming an oat?’”
The production of almost everything I consume—from the incalculably complex MacBook I am typing on, down to the humble pillow wedged between it and my crotch—is, at a base level, somewhat foreign to me. So it’s patronizing, sure, for me to sit here and gawk at a twee porridge-making competition for old people in Scotland. But the Golden Spurtle is actually a stark, sobering reminder that I know absolutely nothing, we are all just waiting out our eventual death by rising heat levels, and the only noble thing worth doing is selecting a grain from life’s dropdown menu and committing to it.
And now: “Fuck it, Bob from Bob’s Red Mill celebrating his Golden Spurtle win in 2016.”
This reminds me of when my local Hindu Temple Heritage Class held a “chanting competition” where we were given 3 or 4 pieces of scripture to learn — things like Chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Gita or the Hanuman Chalisa (This video actually whips. Skip to 50 seconds in.) — and we had to see who could memorize the most. The prizes were literal paper plates, if I remember correctly. But hey, I’m 24 now and I can sing the entire Ganga Stotram, so it was probably some kind of useful!
I can’t believe I agree with old conservative men on anything, but I do sort of agree that the “everyone gets a medal” thing is dumb. My ideal world would be “no one gets a medal.” Medals suck!
We’re hosting another comedy show with the Brooklyn Comedy Collective and TVCO! This one will be Saturday, August 8th at 9pm. Mark your calendars — we’ll send more info next week!