Before mankind made bread or fermented drinks out of grains, they ate porridge from crushed and soaked grains. Since the advent of farming (maybe even before), porridge was an important dish, and it stayed that way until our days, even in Europe, where bread eventually trumped porridge. Porridge is a lot easier to make than bread, it was seen as the food of common people, or even poor-man’s-food, which might have led to it’s decline.
The most important food of ancient Rome was the puls, a porridge made with far, which was a speltwheat variety, probably emmer. Millet, rye and barley was used as fodder. Puls wasn’t only a daily food, but it was used in the cult as well. It was the vestal virgins who prepared the mola salsa, a mixture of roasted far and salt, which was sprinkled on altars and sacrificial animals before they were offered. The simplicity of the mola salsa suggested to the Romans that it was a very ancient and prominent offer, as we can read at Ovidius and Horace. The festival of the Fornacalia were connected to the roasting of the far, too. Puls was used as a sacrifice too, and was used in taking auspices – for example with feeding it to chicken and interpreting their appetite.
(My chicken tucked in when I offered them a bit of millet porridge. A good sign?)
Porridge and grain products were also important in private, domestic centered cult, at the shrine of the ancestors or the hearth, as well as in marriage ceremonies and with the cult of the dead.
This is mirrored in traditions we have from German speaking regions. Especially interesting in this context is common millet (panicum miliaceum). The oldest millet remnants were dated from Linear Pottery culture, in the Paleolithic. They get more frequent in Neolithic times, especially frequent at the shores of Lake Constance and the Swiss lakes of the Alpine footlands. In the Bronze Age, millet finds make up for around 19% of all grain finds, in pre-Roman Iron Age even 31%. Millet is not very hard to grow, it needs warmth but not too much water. It is not very suitable for baking bread, but nutritious as porridge. In the 18th century, millet farming receded, although it was still eaten by poor people, which eventually turned to the potato. These days, millet is not farmed in Germany anymore, it has to be imported.
The Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens documents that millet was regarded as a fertility symbol and was a traditional marriage dish. It was customary to feed the chicken with millet on New Year’s Day so they kept laying well throughout the year (I will have to try that myself although I’m quite satisfied with the amount of eggs my chicken give me). Also, millet not only brought fertility but also wealth. It had apotropaic qualities, but most importantly, it was a Seelenopferspeise, a dish which you eat at funerals and wakes. Millet porridge was the preferred food of dwarves and housewights, the latter judged the appreciation shown them by their human housemates by the size of the butter stick in their millet porridge.
If you hear from porridge in a fairy tale context (like that fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm), it will most probably mean millet porridge, because it has a natural sweetness, which means it does not require much additional (and expensive) sweetener.
So if you suspect there is a housewight living in your house, you do well to offer him a bowl of millet porridge. At the hearth or the oven, as a sign of respect and a request for help, goodwill and luck for your family. And the ancestors won’t turn down a porridge offer either, on the contrary.
And on cold mornings, warm millet porridge is a wonderful breakfast.
Here’s how I make it:
Millet porridge (for two)
I use one cup (one actual cup) of hulled millet with two cups of water and let it boil very shortly, then turn off the heat and let it well. Which takes around 10 minutes. If that takes too long for you in the morning, you can also just soak the millet in water over night, but personally, I think it gets too mushy.
Then I add a half cup of whole milk and boil again very shortly while stirring until the porrdige gets creamy, sometimes I add some more milk while stirring. I add one pinch of salt and then it’s ready. Add a sweetener of your choice (like syrup or honey). I love adding chopped ripe fruit and berries, you can also add apple sauce, or a bit of whipped cream.
Baechtold-Stäubli, Hanns (2005): Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens. Unveränd. photomechanischer Nachdr. der Ausg. Berlin [u.a.] 1937. Augsburg: Weltbild (4).
Körber-Grohne, Udelgard (2001): Nutzpflanzen in Deutschland. Von der Vorgeschichte bis heute ; das kompetente Nachschlagewerk. Lizenzausg. Hamburg: Nikol.
Währen, Max; Schneider, Christoph; Fünfschilling, Sylvia (1995): Die puls. Römischer Getreidebrei. Augst: Römermuseum (Augster Museumshefte, 14).