I’ve written about some important topics lately: Sachsenhausen, V-E Day, war diaries, etc. And there are plenty of other matters I could be writing about: the announcement of the capture of Adolf Eichmann on May 23, 1960, or the arrival of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz on May 24, 1943, or the tragic voyage of the passenger ship MS St. Louis and its Jewish refugees, turned away from Cuba on May 27, 1939.
But this week, while sheltering-in-place, I made myself a batch of one of my favorite cookies: oatmeal raisin. And that got me thinking about oatmeal.
We all know that oatmeal is good for us. But many, like me I suspect, prefer their oatmeal in cookie form rather than as a breakfast meal.
Odd Nansen wasn’t too keen on oatmeal, or porridge as it is sometimes called, either. It didn’t help that his father, Fridtjof Nansen, was a big believer in the efficacy of porridge. In fact, he thought so highly of porridge that he made his children eat it—not simply every day—but twice every day. Can you imagine having only one free meal per day that is not oatmeal? I understand from Odd’s daughter Marit that this wasn’t instant oatmeal either—it required hours and hours of cooking just to make it palatable.
Fridtjof’s children devised their own coping mechanisms. As Odd’s older sister Liv later wrote, “[A]s soon as Father was out of the door . . . having had his breakfast, we rushed to the window and emptied our plates out of it.”
Sometimes Odd Nansen resorted to even more extreme defensive measures. In a letter written in 1906 to Fridtjof, away in London while serving as Norway’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Odd’s mother Eva wrote about Odd’s civil disobedience. “Yesterday he yelled incessantly and said he would not have it [the porridge], but then I came in and said that in that case I should have to write Father, and surely he would not like Father to hear that he had become so fastidious. He at once controlled himself and took his spoon and ate it all up without a grumble. The boy certainly has character.”
One can well imagine a five-year-old Odd Nansen backing down in the face of his mother’s threat. Perhaps he feared that Fridtjof would make him eat porridge three times a day as punishment. [For a man who subsisted on polar bear meat and walrus blubber for months while in the Arctic, perhaps oatmeal seemed like a delicacy.]
But tastes change, and circumstances change, and by December 24, 1942, while in prison in Grini, even Odd Nansen looked forward to a special Christmas Eve treat: “At five o’clock there was to be a common dinner table for each hut, and Christmas porridge. It was rather behind time, but when it did arrive toward seven it was good, really good, and we got two big platefuls each, with sugar, cinnamon and a lump of butter. In our hut we all ate out in the lobby. It was very cozy and successful.”
I recently finished reading No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a history of the Roosevelt White House during World War II. Turns out that FDR was no fan of oatmeal either. Nevertheless, the White House cook—a certain Mrs. Nesbitt, called “Fluffy” behind her back—came from the Fridtjof Nansen school of culinary nutrition, and Fluffy believed in oatmeal.
Here’s how the most powerful man in the world handled it. “My God!” he exclaimed to his secretary Grace Tully one day. “Doesn’t Mrs. Nesbitt know that there are breakfast foods besides oatmeal? It’s been served to me morning in and morning out for months now and I’m sick and tired of it!” Later that day FDR called Tully in for some dictation, and handed her advertisements for various cereals he had torn from the morning paper. “Corn Flakes! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! Post Toasties! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! . . . Now take this gentle reminder to Mrs. Nesbitt.” History does not reveal whether Roosevelt’s gentle reminder ever succeeded.
Odd Nansen never met Franklin Roosevelt, although he tried at least once. Nansen traveled to America in late 1939 to drum up popular and governmental support for tiny Finland, which had been attacked by Russia. Nansen’s diary for January 21, 1940 reads: “Sought an audience with Roosevelt today, but have not yet heard anything. Everything is so damn slow and difficult. I wonder if I should just go over to the White House and ring the bell.”
Apparently, Nansen never got a chance to try out the White House doorbell (although he did meet Eleanor after the war). It’s a pity that FDR and Odd Nansen, two great humanists, never met in person. They undoubtedly would have had much in common, and much to talk about—perhaps starting with their common antipathy to oatmeal.
And yes, there is a National Oatmeal Day. This year it was April 30. I don’t know how I managed to let that anniversary slip by. I’ll be more vigilant next year.
But then again, any day with an oatmeal raisin cookie is National Oatmeal Day to me.