Cambrian: Slice of Life

Travel oats

By Kathe Tanner

This column ran in The Cambrian on Nov. 11, 2004.

It seems I’m always on the hunt for some sort of obscure item.

A while back, I was looking for something I thought might make our travels a bit nicer and a whole lot healthier. My off-the-wall solution turned out to be the ultimate in highly unlikely recycling.

My search began with oatmeal.

Science says oatmeal is good for us. Recent tests showed when people eat oatmeal often, they wind up with lower levels of so-called “bad” cholesterol in their blood. Super! We enjoy oatmeal, especially made with extra-thick rolled oats that retain their shape and subtle crunch.

I add some oat bran, raisins, spices, vanilla and a hint of brown sugar or maple syrup. Sometimes I toss in diced, caramelized fresh apple or pear, or dates or other dried fruit. I occasionally top the oatmeal off with chopped banana or nuts or even a few chocolate chips for a decadent taste reminiscent of Toll-House cookies.

We eat oatmeal several times a week. It gives us energy without weighing us down. And there’s a virtuous feeling to enjoying a dish that nearly everybody agrees is a healthy meal (Atkins Diet and its clones notwithstanding).

But there’s a downside to our habit: We’re spoiled by the rich taste of our customized, homemade cereal.

Consequently, when we travel, we flatly refuse to pay $5 for a chain restaurant’s bland bowl of gruel.

We either settle grudgingly for the flavorless oatmeal glue provided by some of our “breakfast included” motels or we go without, opting for something else that leaves us feeling both overstuffed and underfed.

Instant oatmeal, otherwise known as Son-of-Spackle, is not an option. It tastes like a cross between old Mucilage and that awful stuff the dentist makes you bite into to make a mold of your teeth.

I’ve tried packing my own quick-oatmeal packets, then adding water and cooking the oats in a motel-room microwave oven. No matter how powerful a tiny motel microwave is or isn’t, there’s always a narrow margin of error in micro-cooking oatmeal. Cook the cereal too briefly, and it’s like soggy muesli. Cook it even a little bit too long or in too small a container, and it's glue time again.

I wind up with no oatmeal left in the bowl and an oven that requires sandblasting to get it clean. I imagine this as an episode of a new Food Channel show “Emeril Meets ‘I Love Lucy.’”

And these days, some motels don't even provide microwaves. Bah humbug.

So, the ideal on-the-road oatmeal solution would be a small piece of lightweight kitchen equipment we could carry with us. This obviously won’t work if we’re flying to Paris (highly unlikely), but would be a doable option for our minivan trips.

I tried a tiny crock pot, but they're heavy, and slow-cooker cookbooks are wrong. Oatmeal cooked in a crock pot is not edible — especially when prepared in a mini-cooker with no variable heat control. The oatmeal turned to mush within the first 15 minutes. The crock pot never really got hot enough to boil the water, so even when the oats were suitable for patching driveways, the cereal still didn’t taste done.

We wound up with bland, raw-tasting, lumpy goo. That’s not how I want to start my morning, thanks. Even a garbage disposal would refuse to chew it.

I tried a small saucepan and a portable, electric burner, but found the combo dangerous. When I’m busily stirring hot oatmeal, I really do want the pan to stay put. The combination of a northbound spoon and a slippery, southbound pot can lead to interesting wall art that looks like something a monkey might create with a toothbrush full of cement.

I refined my search, looking for a small, high-sided electric fry pan that gets hot enough to boil water, heat soup or scramble eggs, but which won’t fry the motel counter underneath.

Nonstick would be good, too, added the lazy cook.

Have you tried to find an electric fry pan of any size these days? Don’t bother.

Obviously, the ideal appliance should be versatile, lightweight, sturdy and safe (and would be delivered by the Easter Bunny, no doubt).

I’d just about decided the search was futile. Then, like the Lone Ranger, the answer rode to the rescue out of the dusty, unlikely history lesson in our pantry: Our long-unused electric fondue pot.

Please don’t chortle at me. It’s not polite.

The fondue pot’s perfect. Really. It weighs just a few ounces, heats quickly, is deep enough for oatmeal and soup and wide enough for scrambling eggs. The onion shape means things being stirred don't splash over the top. The pot is nonstick and stable on its attached, heat-resistant plastic cradle.

It works! And it fits nicely in a makeup case that also holds a couple of bowls, a spatula and some eating utensils.

One search complete. Yee-ha!

Now, for my next trick. I need to find something that will muffle the din from the step-cloggers rehearsing at 1 a.m. in the room above us. Got any ideas?