I’ve always been a breakfast person, thanks to the delicious meals I ate growing up in Hong Kong. Sometimes, breakfast was a scallion pancake topped with a fried egg; other times, it was a steamed bun stuffed with pork floss. Occasionally, breakfast was plain ol’ cereal. But mostly, it was an inexpensive baked good from a local bakery or something comforting my mom had made that morning.
In the spring of 2018, however, I started eating one thing and one thing only for breakfast: oatmeal.
I was in my junior year of college and had just moved off campus with two roommates. We were all trying to figure out what to do about food now that we no longer had the dining hall to fall back on. I was also in Chicago, not Hong Kong, where the question of what to eat for breakfast had never fazed me. So, I looked up “cheap and healthy breakfast food” on Pinterest and Instagram (as one does). In a sea of smoothies and egg scrambles, one thing stood out to me above all else: oatmeal. And I don’t mean the sad packet of instant oats you might associate with hotel breakfast bars, but state-of-the-art, beautiful bowls of oatmeal. I was mesmerized by oatmeal drizzled with peanut butter, topped with just the right amount of blueberries, framed by perfectly layered banana slices. Grid after grid showed oatmeal sprinkled with chia seeds and apple chunks and even fancy chocolate. Oatmeal was clearly an “aesthetic” breakfast choice, and as an impressionable college student, I believed oatmeal would change my life.
And it did. Oatmeal was a warm and nourishing way to start the day with a generous helping of fiber. Also, once smothered in peanut butter and toppings like granola (more oatmeal!), it was delicious. For me, breakfast became synonymous with beautiful. I regularly scrolled past so many beautiful bowls of oatmeal on social media that I, too, became obsessed with the idea of crafting a picture-perfect breakfast. Every morning, I’d look forward to Instagramming my “artsy breakfast” of oats, garnished with berries, seeds, peanut butter, and banana slices. I made instant oats, stovetop oats, microwaved oats, baked oats, and overnight oats. I ate oats that were piping hot, at room temperature, and straight out of the fridge. Simply put, oatmeal became the most important meal of my day. No matter how the rest of my day played out, I took comfort in knowing that it would begin beautifully—with oatmeal.
“Doesn’t oatmeal taste like cardboard?” my boyfriend at the time used to ask me. “Can it really keep you full until lunch?” I always staunchly defended oatmeal and insisted that there’s no breakfast I’d rather be eating. I joked that oatmeal was my GOAT-meal, my greatest-of-all-time meal. And yet, part of me always wondered: once I stripped away the toppings and Instagram-worthy elements of oatmeal, would I still love oatmeal? When I say I love oatmeal, don’t I really mean that I love dressed-up, photo-ready #oatmeal?
It took me a while to realize that oatmeal wasn’t just breakfast—it was my American breakfast. Chicago was becoming my second home at the time, and even the 42 oz tub of Quaker Oats I restocked every month had strong ties to Chicago; the city has housed the Quaker conglomerate’s headquarters since 1901. Every time I logged onto Instagram, I’d see photos that influencers shared of their oatmeal bowls, which were adorned with expensive toppings (cacao nibs, hemp hearts, edible flowers) that I had never heard of when growing up. When I’m back in Hong Kong for the holidays, I don’t always eat oatmeal for breakfast, and find that I don’t even miss it that much. Instead, I make a beeline for the local bakeries I can’t visit as easily in America. But in Chicago, I couldn’t imagine my day to day life without oatmeal. In a way, oatmeal represented my experience living abroad; it was inextricable from my efforts to “adult” in a foreign country, to project an image that my life was put-together and beautiful.
Gradually, I began to question why I felt the urge to be performative with oatmeal. I had started out looking for a cheap breakfast option, but my breakfasts were becoming increasingly bougie. I even added pepitas and coconut flakes, which I’d typically never buy, to my shopping list with the sole intention of sprinkling them over my oatmeal in the morning. Did beautifying my breakfast at 7 AM really guarantee that my day begin beautifully? More often than not, I’d spend the morning editing my oatmeal photos for Instagram while chowing down a no-longer beautiful bowl of oats before rushing to class. Eventually, either because I was fed up with Instagram or because I was tired of accessorizing my breakfast every morning only to eventually dig in and destroy it, I stopped creating “artsy” oatmeal. Instead, I ate oatmeal with the affordable toppings I liked—a banana, a spoonful of peanut butter, and some frozen berries—casually tossed into a bowl, without glitz or glamor.
I wondered whether my oatmeal routine would gradually fizz out now that I was no longer invested in making the perfect bowl of oatmeal, but it didn’t. After all, I was raised a breakfast person, and at a time of my life when my eating schedule could have been derailed by inconvenient class hours or homework assignments, a breakfast regimen helped me start each day off on the right foot. “When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” asks Piglet in a classic scene from Winnie the Pooh, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?” “What’s for breakfast?” Pooh replies. “I say,” counters Piglet, “what’s going to happen exciting today?” Pooh nods thoughtfully, then adds: “It’s the same thing.”
Like Pooh, I’m always thinking about breakfast when I wake up. Oatmeal motivates me to get out of bed on a cold morning, and its reassuring consistency is a balm for the unpredictability of each passing day. Nothing can hurt me while I’m eating oatmeal, which softens the blow of the daily news or a disappointing email. Much has changed in the two years since I started eating oatmeal: I’m no longer in college, I now live on the West Coast, and my then-boyfriend is now my husband. Needless to say, the year 2020 also upended my life without warning. But in the midst of chaos and change, my relationship with oatmeal remains as strong as ever. Every night, I spend a minute prepping two bowls of overnight oats, one for me and one for my husband, an oatmeal skeptic-turned-devotee. In the morning, we split a banana and eat our mushy, mundane breakfast while scrolling through our phones and getting ready for the day.
At the end of the day, or rather—at the start of the morning—oatmeal is simply breakfast. It’s not the centerpiece of an Instagram photo or an illusion of an idyllic life. Instead, it’s exactly what I need it to be: something comforting during the winter, a pandemic, and unpredictable times. And I think that’s beautiful.
May Huang is a writer and translator from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Words Without Borders, Circumference, World Literature Today, The Commons, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She was a mentee in ALTA’s 2020 Emerging Translators Mentorship Program and received an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation. She publishes crossword puzzles every Sunday on the website Crossworthy. You can find her on Twitter as @mayhuangwrites or @crossworthy.