9 April 2020 – Gruel Thursday

Today I got up early, made gruel, then offered it to the Sea Gods down on Brighton Beach, because that’s what you do on Gruel Thursday, aka Great Gruel Thursday, aka Maundy Thursday. Up until now, my only real encounter with gruel has been Charles Dickens, and obviously I’ve not been paying attention as I thought it was some sort of meagre broth. Turns out it’s a very, very thin porridge made with oats, water and salt, or at least it is according to the recipe I used.

First, I mixed three dessert spoons of oat flakes (it was supposed to be oatmeal but I didn’t have any) with a bit of water to make a paste, then I added it to 500ml of boiling water, boiled the lot for ten minutes, then finished the dish with a pinch or two of salt. If you’ve ever followed any of my previous recipes (and there’s hot cross buns coming up tomorrow), you’ll know by now that cooking is not quite my thing. I love doing it, but it doesn’t quite love me back. So when I plopped the paste into the boiling water and it didn’t suddenly disintegrate into a silken soup, I realised my error and started bashing the bulk with the back of a wooden spoon. But a smooth finish was not to be, and lumps kept bubbling up to the surface. When the cooking was over, I braved a slurp only to realise I’d overdone it with the salt rendering it inedible. However, I bargained the Sea Gods probably wouldn’t notice.

Traditionally, today’s Sea God offering can be gruel, mead or ale, and is made in the hopes of cajoling a good seaweed crop out of them. As I intended to only dribble a tiny offering, so as not to be accused of marine vandalism, I left my unopened bottle of mead on the shelf and subbed in whisky for the ale. I thought the Gods wouldn’t mind. I should probably stop thinking for the Gods. Decanting some gruel into a food bag, I put on some sensible pebble walking shoes and headed down to the beach.

According to The Book of Iona: An Anthology, the ritual is performed just after midnight on the morning on Gruel Thursday, waist deep in the sea, the chant then being taken up by all those along the shore. I was social distancing on the beach just after 8am and managed a paddle. I’d written the incantation on a pink index card which I whipped out along with my gruel and my whisky miniature and proceeded to tip a little of each into the sea while intoning the words. I really need to work on my intoning. In case you can’t access either the video or audio, the water was breathtakingly chapel hat peg cold. 

Wading out.
Concentrating on a chant and a ritual offering while being sloshed with icy sea water is not easy, I’ll have you know.
Not quite Ursula Andress.

Needless to say my Gaelic sucks, so I chanted in English but here’s both versions:

A Dhe na mara
Cuir todhar’s an tarruin
Chon tachair an talaimh
Chon bailcidh dhuinn biaidh.

Oh God of the sea
Put weed in the drawing wave,
To enrich the ground,
To shower on us food.

That’s groyne, not groin.

And then I dried off my feet and came home. I’ve decided, probably recklessly, that me and the Sea Gods are pals now, and I shall return to check for seaweed abundance often. I may even bring more whisky.


Resources

Bloom, P. (2016) Old Wives’ Lore; A Book of Old-Fashioned Tips & Remedies, London, Michael O’Mara Books Limited

Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Crawford, R (ed) (2016) The Book of Iona: An Anthology, Edinburgh, Polygon

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