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Gruel: Wikis


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Rice gruel, known as congee in East and Southeast Asia

Gruel is a food preparation consisting of some type of cereal— oat, wheat or rye flour, or also rice— boiled in water or milk. It is a thinner version of porridge that may be more often drunk than eaten and need not even be cooked. Historically, gruel, often made from millet or barley, or in hard times of chestnut flour and even the less tannic acorns of some oaks, has been the staple of the human diet, especially that of the peasantry. The importance of gruel as a form of sustenance is especially noted for invalids[1] and recently weaned children.

Gruel consumption has traditionally been associated with poverty. Gruel is a colloquial expression of any slop that is of unknown character, e.g. pea soup; soup is derived from sop, the slice of bread which was soaked with broth or thin gruel.[2]



Gruel was the staple food of the ancient Greeks, for whom roasted meats were the extraordinary feast that followed sacrifice, even among heroes, and "in practice bread was a luxury eaten only in towns". Roman plebeians "ate the staple gruel of classical times, supplemented by oil, the humbler vegetables and salt fish",[3] for gruel could be prepared without access to the communal ovens that baked bread. In the Middle Ages the peasant could avoid the tithe exacted, usually in kind, for grain ground by the miller of the landowner's mill by roasting the grains, to make them digestible, and grinding small portions in a mortar at home and, in lieu of cooking the resulting paste on the hearthstone, simmering it in a cauldron with water, or, luxuriously, with milk.

In the Western Hemisphere, maize gruels were once one of the main food sources for many Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Maya and Aztecs. Atole was a preparation of ground maize that was often flavored with chili and salt. It could be consumed or drunk both as an important calorie source and as a thirst quencher.


The OED gives an etymology of Middle English gruel from the same word in Old French, both of them depending from a source in Late Latin grutellum, a diminutive, as the form of the word demonstrates, possibly from a Frankish *grūt, surmised on the basis of a modern cognate grout.

In fiction

In the Western world, gruel is remembered as the food of the child workhouse inmates in Charles Dickens' Industrial Revolution novel, Oliver Twist (1838), chapter 2; the workhouse was supplied with "an unlimited supply of water" and "small quantities of oatmeal". When Oliver asks the master of the workhouse for some more, he is struck a blow to the head for it. The "small saucepan of gruel" waiting upon Ebenezer Scrooge's hob in Dickens' A Christmas Carol emphasizes how miserly Scrooge is.

Also, in The Simpsons episode "Kamp Krusty", Bart and some of the other children are forced to eat "Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel" as their only meal, punctuated by the comment "Nine out of ten orphans can't tell the difference." Martin, who spent the episode in fat camp, later remarked, "Sweet, nourishing gruel!" Gruel is also mentioned frequently in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë as a daily staple meal, even amongst the largely middle class families featured in the novel.

A counter example of literary reference to gruel can be found in Jane Austen's Emma, wherein the title character's well-off father, Mr. Woodhouse, is depicted as most fond of gruel, "thin, but not too thin", for sustenance, health and good character.


  1. ^ A gruel of cornmeal, soaked and cooking in a double-boiler, was recommended for typhus patients in The American Journal of Nursing 14.4 (January 1914) p. 296.
  2. ^ Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, Anthea Bell, tr. The History of Food, revised ed. 2009, p. 161.
  3. ^ Toussaint-Samat 2009, p. 93.

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