The other day, a student told me that he feeds his 9-month old baby gruel. Had I not lived in Japan for 9 months and already come to realize that the Japanese use the oh-so-Dickensian term “gruel” to signify rice porridge – a popular breakfast food here – I might have been taken aback. Nope, not surprised any more, although I couldn’t help being amused, as I always am to get that little bit of Victorian England in my life.My student is at a fairly high level in his English studies so I explained to him the connotations of the word “gruel.” Even though technically it’s correct to use it – for, indeed, rice porridge is gruel – the word “gruel” is commonly associated with the meals of poor children who haven’t got any parents. He’d never read Oliver Twist, but he “got it” and nodded. He asked if I’d ever had gruel. I told him that I haven’t – traditionally, mushy things that are bland in color turn me off.
I then told him that in America, we favor oatmeal to porridge but we do have a soggy rice dish of our own – rice pudding. As I described how milk and sugar and raisins and cinnamon combine to create one of America’s great comfort foods, I witnessed a curious thing – my student’s face had frozen.
“No rice pudding for you?” I asked. My student – who comes from a culture where seaweed is eaten for breakfast and “meat mix” does not mean “chicken, beef, and pork” but instead means a mix of all of the cow’s internal organs – was ashen.
“Sweet … rice?” he gulped.