A bowl of gruel with Mr Woodhouse

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Imagine being in lockdown with Mr Woodhouse. It’d undoubtably end badly, but since we’re all hypochondriacs now, racing to the computer at the slightest sign of a dry cough, fever, loss of smell or tingling in the arms, perhaps we should have a little more sympathy for the invalid father of Jane Austen’s Emma, a man whose daily fears range from the debilitating impact of germs, draughts and too rich food to coach journeys, marriage and all events that threaten a change to established routine. Mr Woodhouse did have one weapon with which to fight off the marauding germs, however, and it’s one that might come in handy in the coming weeks, especially if you have your own invalid to nurture. Gruel.

In Mr Woodhouse’s view, gruel was a cure-all that contained a ‘wholesomeness for every constitution…’. He liked it ‘thin, but not too thin’ and, if allowed by his doctor, ate it with a tablespoon of wine or sugar. The Woodhouse household might have used the recipe by Hannah Glasse in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy first published in 1747, but in 1861, Mrs Beeton also included a recipe in her Book of Household Management. Both appear below

To Make Water-Gruel

You must take a pint of water and a large spoonful of oatmeal; then stir it together and let it boil up three or four times, stirring it often; do not let it boil over; then strain it through a sieve, salt it to your palate, put in a good piece of fresh butter, brew it with a spoon til the butter is all melted, then it will be fine and smooth, and very good: som love a little pepper in it.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse (1747)

To make a pint of gruel for invalids

1 tablespoon oats

2 tablespoons cold water

1 pint boiling water

Mix the oats with the cold water in a basin, pour over the boiling water, stirring all the time. Put in a saucepan and boil for 10 minutes, stirring well. Sweeten to taste and serve. It may be flavoured with a small piece of lemon added while boiling, or a little grated nutmeg. Mrs Beeton adds: ‘When wine is allowed to the invalid, 2 tablespoons of sherry or port make this preparation very nice. In cases of colds, the same quantity of spirits is sometimes added instead of wine’

Book of Household Management by Mrs Isabella Beeton (1861)