Are You Getting Your Oats?

My random musings meandered recently to oats. I’m beginning to believe that this humble cereal may not be quite as dull as it seems from first glance. Mystery, an interesting present, an exotic past are attached to this tiny grain, not to mention the sexual connotations of getting one’s oats or sowing wild ones.
There are many varieties: domesticated, rolled (sex again), cultivated (who presumably wouldn’t dream of talking to their wild cousins), Avena byzantine, crimped, who are doubtless ready for a night out. Domesticated oats conjure up a vision of little bunches of them wandering around the house, or curled up on the sofa, perhaps by the fire. Purring, even.
But why always multiples? In common parlance; wheat, not wheats, rye, not ryes. But oats, not oat. Although technically correct to describe a single plant, e.g. a stray one in a field of corn, as ‘an oat’, or one tiny little husk, generally it’s not used. So who are these creatures that hunt in packs?
There could be a grain of truth in the concept that oats might have changed the course of history. Oatmeal caudle, a drink made with ale, oatmeal and spices was a favourite drink of Oliver Cromwell; doubtless made from cultivated oats, not the common kind. If his carotid arteries had not been kept so clear by this combination of alcohol and soluble fibre, might his brain have been less efficient, his leadership thus less powerful?
Important enough to appear in powerful, classical literature, the oat was used by Dickens to highlight, and thus alleviate, the sufferings of the Victorian poor. The workhouse that Oliver Twist lived in was supplied with small amounts of oatmeal, making up the groats that Oliver so famously asked for more of. Would the image have been as powerful, if, instead of his gruel bowl, he had held out an empty toast rack?
The common oat may be less notable than its cultivated cousin, but it goes by a very grand name: Avena sativa. There may be a conundrum here, because although sowing one’s wild oats is being free with one’s fancy, the ancestor of the Avena sativa is a wild oat called Avena sterilis. Perhaps sterilis is preferable, if in oat sowing mood. The American expression ‘feel your oats’ suggests great confidence in your abilities or importance; also an undoubted advantage if the dissemination of untamed artery-friendly cereal is on your evening agenda.
Containing more soluble fibre than any other grain, they’re extremely good for the heart. Is this where the concept of sowing one’s wild oats originated? Maybe the grain is good for the groin. Usually oats are sown in spring and early summer. However, wild oats are sown at any time, proving that they are truly unfettered by convention, untamed by nature.
Wild oats share fame with the cultivated genus. In the Jacobean era, John Fletcher wrote a play entitled Monsieur Thomas and used Wild-oats as a nickname for two of his characters. You’d have though it confusing to have two players with the same nickname, so either Fletcher was permanently drunk whilst bashing out the play or he thought the name so fabulous it must be used polytemporaneously (doubtless not a word, but nothing else seemed to do).
So here’s these frisky little fellows who are multi-talented, stars of literature, possible shapers of history. With strong heart health and sexual connotations they could claim to be more of an aphrodisiac than oysters. Perhaps in the future restaurants which now have tanks from which one can choose a live lobster will need to change to having tiny fields where you can choose your cereal plants. So my advice would be reject oysters; pick oats.


About alisongardiner1

Writer of YA series of books. Broadcaster/podcaster Litopia After Dark.
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