From the Homestead Kitchen: Giving Oats a Chance

by Gennie Truelock

Oatmeal. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t a fan until I was well into my twenties. As a kid with two working parents, I often fixed my own breakfast before school, which allowed me to develop a taste for sugary, cold cereal over a piping hot bowl of mush. Combine that with the fact that I don’t like raisins, the oatmeal raisin cookie is a definite no in my opinion. The only association I had with oatmeal growing up was the famous line from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist when the titular character, a hungry orphan residing in a workhouse, asks for a second helping of gruel (a thinned-out oatmeal) saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” He is summarily beaten and sold off as an apprentice.

Doesn’t exactly inspire one to fix a heaping helping of the stuff.

But it turns out that I wasn’t the only latecomer to the wonderful texture and nutty flavor of oatmeal. In fact, most of the world, it seems, was hesitant to consume this course flour. British essayist and playwright Samuel Johnson once wrote that oats were “…a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.” It was thought that oats were a weed, fit only for animal feed and the stomachs of the poor. So how did it become a pantry staple? It seems that journey, from field to table, would take thousands of years.

Oatmeal’s humble origins

A pile of oats. Yum?

The oldest archeological findings of oat grains were discovered in Egypt and date to around 2000 BCE. However, these oats were more likely growing wild instead of intentionally cultivated plants. It is believed that the oldest cultivated oats were found in caves in Switzerland, where the grain might have accidently migrated, tucked in amongst other cereal grains, and date to the mid- to late-Bronze Age. Although the Chinese may have been familiar with them even earlier than that. But unlike wheat and barley, oats were not valued much by anyone and seen as feed for livestock.

Oat cultivation eventually found its way to Northwest Europe, by way of the Romans, where the climate, especially in Scotland, is perfect for growing the grain. By the 1400s it was popularly eaten there in many forms from porridge to bannock bread to oat cakes and as a required addition to haggis. Oats finally made their way to North America by the 1600s, but weren’t eaten by the majority of the populace until the mid-1800s.

Enter the ‘Oatmeal King’

In 1851, German immigrant Ferdinand Schumacher was living in Akron, Ohio, where he established a small grocery store. Schumacher, who had eaten oats as a breakfast item back in Germany had noticed that oats were being grown in the region, but that the residents there were only using the grain for animal feed. He decided to experiment with ways to process and package the oats to make them an appealing option for the town’s residents. In 1854, he sold oats chopped into one-ounce square blocks packaged in glass jars. By processing the oats, it cut down the time needed to cook the grain, making them an appealing breakfast option to the home cook.

Within two years, Schumacher was in the oatmeal processing business. He purchased a mill in Akron, which he named the German Mills American Oatmeal Company, and installed machinery that allowed him to process 20 barrels of ground oats per day. But how did eating oatmeal grow from a novel specialty in Akron to being served up in homes and restaurants across the United States? The answer to that may surprise you.

Oatmeal and the Union cause

When the American Civil War began in 1861, the Union Army was in need of a cheap and easy way to feed thousands of soldiers (as well as their horses) and they turned to Schumacher to fill that need. As demand for his product skyrocketed, the canal and railroads near his mill allowed Schumacher to expand his market reach. In 1863, due to growing demand, Schumacher opened the Empire Barley Mill and continued to experiment with new ways to process oats. He eventually hit on the method of creating rolled oats, which are oat groats that are husked, steamed, and then flattened by rollers to create flakes, which are then toasted. Schumacher’s flaked, or rolled oats, quickly became a best seller and soon made their way to breakfast bowls across the United States.

After a fire, which destroyed the Empire Barley Mill in 1886, Schumacher merged his business with the Akron Milling Company and formed the F. Schumacher Milling Company. But as new competitors gained ground in the now thriving oat cereal market, investors in the F. Schumacher Milling Company encouraged the purchasing of other mills, including the Quaker Mill, which placed an image of a Quaker on their packaging, in an effort to reduce competition. Soon a new company was formed, the American Cereal Company.

Quaker Oats is born

Schumacher served as the American Cereal Company’s first president, but he was removed in 1899 over disputes with investors. In 1901, American Cereal began to produce other products but wanting to stay true to their roots, they formed a parent company for the oats division, known as Quaker Oats. They also decided to continue to use the image of the Quaker as the recognizable logo for their product, believing that the symbol of the Quaker stood for integrity, honesty, and purity, three very important ideals at a time when the question of food purity was on the minds of many Americans. To read more on why food purity laws were enacted in the US, take a look at this previous post.

Notice the use of the Quaker image. He has changed quite a bit over the years. Advertisement for Quaker Oats from the Los Angeles Evening Express, February 8, 1923.

But wait! What about the oatmeal cookie?

I did a quick search online to see when recipes for oatmeal cookies began appearing in newspapers. The earliest entry that I found was from the December 6, 1888, issue of The Halstead Herald from Halstead, Kansas. The first cookbook in the US to carry a recipe was the 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer, which I must note, didn’t contain raisins. Recipes for using oatmeal in cookies seems to remain fairly sporadic in newspapers until the 1910s, which also coincides with when Quaker Oats began to print a recipe for oatmeal cookies on every cannister. By the 1920s, hundreds of oatmeal cookie recipes, often with the addition of raisins and nuts, appeared in newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, and pamphlets. I made two of these 1920s cookie recipes. They come from the 1923 pamphlet, A Lesson Plan on Christmas Suggestions found in the Museum’s collection, created by home economist Ruth Leone Rutledge as an education guide for Home EC teachers, demonstrators, and students (to learn more about the Home Economics Movement, click here).

This pamphlet contains quite a few fun ideas for holiday treats and as Ruth Leone Rutledge wrote in the section on Small Cakes and Cookies: “Making such cookies is great fun.” Cover of A Lesson Plan on Christmas Suggestions, 1923. From the Homestead Museum collection.

Oatmeal cookie recipes

An interesting idea, just a bit bland as written. Oatmeal Brittle Cookies recipe from A Lesson Plan on Christmas Suggestions, 1923. From the Homestead Museum collection.
I’m still not going to add raisins. Chocolate chips however…Oatmeal Cookies recipe from A Lesson Plan on Christmas Suggestions, 1923. From the Homestead Museum collection.

To be honest, both these recipes fell a little flat for me. The Oatmeal Brittle Cookie was ‘meh’ at best, and the Oatmeal Cookie recipe lacked flavor as well. I would recommend adding 1 teaspoon of vanilla and ¼ teaspoon of salt to the Oatmeal Cookie recipe. I also wouldn’t say no to some chocolate chips instead of the raisins. For the Oatmeal Brittle Cookies, if you are using old-fashioned oats, put them through a food processor or use quick oats instead since they are already cut up into smaller pieces so the cookie isn’t so tough to chew. Also, I would swap the granulated sugar for brown sugar, add at least ½ teaspoon of vanilla and some spices like ginger, cinnamon, and/or nutmeg just to give the cookies a much-needed punch.

Oatmeal Brittle Cookies (rear of the plate) and Oatmeal Cookies. How did those chocolate chips get in there?

I hope you have enjoyed this exploration into oatmeal, and if you have a favorite way to use this often-overlooked grain, let us know! Drop us a message in the comments below or tag us on social media @homesteadmuseum.

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