One day, sometime in the last few years, I stopped making oatmeal every morning and let chaos reign. The oatmeal had become a daily part of my life when I became vegan, and it stayed that way for more than half a decade, changing only minimally.
When I was a hardcore exercise freak, the oats were combined with a closely measured two tablespoons of peanut butter and mixed up with two sliced bananas. When I wanted to treat myself, I drizzled this with maple syrup. During summers on Long Island when stonefruit was in season, I made the oats in coconut water rather than water-water and topped it with sliced peaches. Sometimes the dregs of a can of coconut milk used for something else would be my oatmeal liquid. Those days were pure decadence.
Eventually, I cut down to one banana as my standard fruit. I tried to be local about it but the banana was truly perfect, and I always bought fair trade, though I do remember a long period of dicing up New York State apples and contemplatively eating the bowls on the stoop of my building in Bushwick. I thought, quite confidently, that I would never get sick of my daily oats, but then one day—and just like that!—I did.
In the last year or so, the oats have returned on occasion, but in the last couple of months, as I’ve needed to be deeply focused in a way that I usually am not to complete my manuscript, I returned to the oats and they seemed to return me to my brain. Now it’s just oats cooked in water, a spoonful of peanut butter, a spoon of whatever jam is open, a little flaky salt, and some cinnamon. Sometimes, instead of jam, I chop up dried dates or figs—fancy!
Everything gets done when I have these oats. The oats are my tether to reality, to routine, but now I’m calling them ritual. I’m an evangelist for oatmeal right now; it’s like falling in love all over again.
I like what Meghan O’Gieblyn wrote in a recent Harper’s essay, about the monastery turning into the factory, a perhaps apocryphal tale of historical human development: “Ritual dissolved into routine.” And now routine is fetishized as a means of becoming a more productive machine-human, though perhaps it’s ritual we should be after.
It’s been interesting to watch people’s routines, or their exaggerated commitments to routines, become an online obsession. I see Reels about starting each day in an aesthetically coherent manner, with the brewed matcha and the to-do lists and the yoga. In this house, we get up each weekday morning and jog with the dog, and aside from the return of the oatmeal, that’s the extent of my morning wellness.
I don’t make the bed; I don’t journal at a compulsory time. I prefer to start each day with coffee, oats, and something to read on the patio table, and then I drag myself to the laptop—which, mind you, I don’t even like to work at the desk I bought for the purpose of working. To finish my book, I had to write on the couch, our balcony open to the breeze, always risking the chance of someone popping by to say hello. Like my brain, my body needs some room to stretch out, and I need every book for reference around me. The piles of books drive my husband nuts, but as I’ve reminded him, in my New York accent, I’m writing a book here!!!
Which is to say, we all have our ways of doing things. Mine is a mess that’s not a mess. It’s piles. My calendar and planner are organized, though. I’ve got that.
I don’t have a routine, mechanized way of approaching each workday because, put simply, that would make me unhappy. But I’ve learned that from putting in work, from turning routine back into ritual. That doesn’t mean I don’t like to look at the routine fetish. There is clear appeal there.
Sophie Haigney wrote for The New York Times Magazine about the routine phenomenon, about how it seems to be about that age-old obsession of seeking control when most people have very little control over how they spend their days:
“The schedules in these TikTok videos can be similar, so rigid that they belie an underlying sense of dread. But they are presented aspirationally. The implicit promise is that we, too, might schedule our lives this way. The routines are both highly personal and one-size-fits-all, with an odd exchange between intimacy and impersonality; someone invites you into her day, but mostly to show you how yours might be lived better.”
Despite my interest in others’ routines, I don’t think anymore that I might live my day-to-day life any better, but ten years ago, when I started the oatmeal routine along with a lot of other lost habits, I certainly did. (As Amanda Mull wrote in her piece on routine for The Atlantic, “I figure that I am who I am, give or take a reasonable capacity for marginal change,” and this acceptance seems to just come with age—as well as having success in areas of my life that give me meaning, which I desperately lacked in my twenties.)
Imbuing that routine with magical powers helped me at least find my essential ritual, my anchor, though: oatmeal. I don’t know how I lived without the oats for the last few years, but I do know I’ll forget all this again one day. And then, again, I’ll remember.
This Friday’s paid subscriber From the Kitchen dispatch will include a white bean soup—inspired by pasta e fagioli but made with a Puerto Rican flavor base.
The newsletter’s aesthetic has been refreshed by Kit Mills, a friend and my favorite illustrator. Fresh podcast—with a theme song, professional editing, full transcripts, and new art—will debut in February!
Programming Note: I’ll be off next week, as I don’t publish whenever there’s a Monday holiday and I have a project that’s kicking into gear, plus organizing for the podcast relaunch. I’ll return on Monday, January 24, with an essay on serious food matters—I promise! And get excited: The paid subscriber recipe on January 28 will be from Andrew Janjigian of Wordloaf.
I haven’t yet seen it in print, but I am thrilled to have a recipe for coconut panna cotta with carambola compote in the latest issue of Lux, a socialist-feminist magazine. It was styled by the brilliant Alli Gelles, an artist-baker whom I included in my piece for T on art cake.
I FINISHED MY FULL FIRST DRAFT OF MY BOOK and it needs a lot of work but it’s the best I could do by myself, so now I’m gonna finish the whole fucking My Struggle series and then I will have to figure out what else to do with my life. I’m into recommendations: I am a fucking FREAK for autofiction, autotheory, for art criticism, for fiction about political absurdity so long as it’s not based in the U.S., etc.
Oatmeal, of course. Passion fruit panna cotta and shortbread cookies for Three Kings’ Day dessert. Ziti for Three Kings’ Day lunch. I wanted to make mushroom pate for Three Kings’ Day aperitivo, but my husband barred me because he said when I go overboard that I start yelling, “fuck my life,” which is true. I do do that. But I love mushroom pate!!!
I love oatmeal! We have it almost every day. We started our oatmeal habit when my partner had stomach problems due to work stress a few years back and it was the only thing that calmed his upset stomach. We still eat and enjoy it, usually with some fresh fruit on top (banana, blueberries, kiwi, or whatever is in season), sometimes some chia seeds or nuts, or make some compote (Amy Chaplin has some great, easy recipes in Whole Food Cooking Everyday).
A book suggestion: Gnomon by Nick Harkway, political SCIFI not set in the US :).
I am dying to make oats a habit but can’t get past the texture. What kind of oats do you use? And do you have a way to prepare them so they are not mooshy-e?