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February 7 is Charles Dickens’ birthday and one of the days that I look forward to after the holiday season. It is the perfect time to sit in a comfy chair and read one of Mr. Dickens’ wonderful books or watch one of the many movie versions of his work.

This year I have packed my copy of Oliver Twist to read while I’m in Missouri with Sarah’s family during the week. This is one of my very favorite Dickens stories to read or watch on the screen. The musical of the same name that came out in 1968 is one of my favorite movies and the music is unforgettable.

Many of the themes of Mr. Dickens’ novels are based on people and situations from his own life. His father was a spendthrift who ended up in debtor’s prison when Charles was just twelve. The scenes in his novels that deal with the conditions in those prisons were written from firsthand knowledge.

During this family crisis, Charles was sent to work to help pay the family debts in a bleak warehouse where he made labels for pots of blacking. The tragedy of children taking on adult responsibilities is another constant theme of his writing and it was informed by his own experiences. Once I knew this, it was easy to see why he could create the character of Oliver Twist with such compassion and intimacy.

As is evident from Mr. Dickens’ body of work, he didn’t succumb to the temptation to lose faith in the ability of people to rise above their situation and improve their lives. I think that is why I enjoy his writing so much.

One of the most iconic scenes from the musical takes place as Oliver and his mates sing about “Food, Glorious, Food” after a meager dinner of gruel or porridge. After viewing this scene as a teenager, I thought porridge must be absolutely horrid. I was wrong. The porridge served to the orphans might have been horrid, but it didn’t necessarily mean all porridge was nasty.

That point was brought home to me recently when my friend Jean lent me a new-to-her book that she found on one of her cookbook searches. She stopped by so I could look at this volume entitled “Porridge – Oats and Their Many Health Benefits” by Margaret Briggs. Ms. Briggs was a teacher in Kent, North Yorkshire and Sussex. Upon retirement, she launched a career in writing. She has written other volumes about gardening tips and vinegar. Based on how much I enjoyed this volume, I will search for her other works.

I learned so much from this little book. I didn’t know that “the oats we eat today were first found in western Europe as wild oats, or a weed growing with barley.” Both of those grains were essential for feeding people and their livestock. According to Ms. Briggs, oats are not demanding plants and grow well in lots of different soils that may be incompatible with more difficult plants to grow.

While some folks consider oats mainly to be feed and fodder for animals, others consider porridge a great meal for humans. Oats are a great source of fiber and carbohydrates. They are 13 percent protein and also provide B vitamins, iron and calcium. Slice a banana onto your oats, pour milk over it all and you have a great breakfast.

According to Ms. Briggs, gruel was a nasty concoction made of a “small handful of oats to five or six cups of water.” Of course, this combination did not provide much nourishment at all and those who were forced to eat it were hungry and malnourished just like little Oliver who wanted some more! These poor little, abused kids would have loved to eat some of the wonderful recipes that Ms. Briggs features in “Porridge.” Here are two that I plan using for my oat loving family.

Cheese and Onion Oat Flan

One cup whole wheat flour

One cup oatmeal

1/2 cup butter

Water for mixing

Pinch of salt

2 eggs

3 chopped onions

1/2 cup milk

2 cups grated cheese of your choice

Put the flour, salt and oatmeal into a large bowl and rub in the butter. Add enough water to mix a firm dough. Turn onto a floured surface, knead and roll out to line a flan dish. Put in the fridge while you make the filling. Heat some oil in a pan to fry the chopped onions. Fry until they start to turn brown. Beat the eggs and add the milk, then the onions and most of the cheese. Put into the pastry crust, add the rest of the cheese and a good pinch or grinding of pepper. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes.

Honey and Oat Bread

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/4 cups oats

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg

2 tablespoons honey

3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon melted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease an 8-inch loaf tin. Put the flour, oats, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Beat together the egg, honey, and milk and add to the flour and oats, stirring well. Pour into the loaf pan tin and bake for about 75 minutes or until crusty and hollow when knocked. Pour the melted butter over the hot loaf and turn out onto a cooling rack.

Quote of the Week: You have to eat oatmeal or you’ll dry up. Anybody knows that. — Kay Thompson Cheese and Onion Oat Flan

One cup whole wheat flour

One cup oatmeal

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½ cup butter

Water for mixing

Pinch of salt

2 eggs

3 chopped onions

½ cup milk

2 cups grated cheese of your choice

^pPut the flour, salt and oatmeal into a large bowl and rub in the butter. Add enough water to mix a firm dough. Turn onto a floured surface, knead and roll out to line a flan dish. Put in the fridge while you make the filling. Heat some oil in a pan to fry the chopped onions. Fry until they start to turn brown. Beat the eggs and add the milk, then the onions and most of the cheese. Put into the pastry crust, add the rest of the cheese and a good pinch or grinding of pepper. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes.

Honey and Oat Bread

2½ cups flour

1¼ cups oats

2½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg

2 tablespoons honey

¾ cup milk

1 teaspoon melted butter

^pPreheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease an 8-inch loaf tin. Put the flour, oats, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Beat together the egg, honey, and milk and add to the flour and oats, stirring well. Pour into the loaf pan tin and bake for about 75 minutes or until crusty and hollow when knocked. Pour the melted butter over the hot loaf and turn out onto a cooling rack.

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Ellen Lund of Fremont is a freelance food columnist.

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