I recently experienced a little bit of food Nirvana in a place I never would have expected: The Au Bon Pain that’s located in the lobby of Boston Children’s Hospital.
It was Friday morning, and I’d been holed up in my daughter, Chloe’s, hospital room for days, barely leaving her side since she had major spinal cord surgery on Tuesday.
A quiet was blanketing the hospital; it was the kind of calm, still, hush that comes with early morning snowfall. Outside, a winter storm was busy dumping more than a foot of snow on the city. For once, Chloe was sleeping soundly. For once, no nurse was hurrying into the room to take her temperature or give her morphine.
And for the first time in days, I found myself unafraid. It had been such a long three days of Chloe being miserable, sick, feverish, in pain, sleeping fitfully, panicking and calling for me if I strayed too far from her bedside. I’d even been sleeping next to her in her hospital bed. But Chloe had finally turned a corner, and seemed to be getting better. And now, I was awake, and it was white-out quiet. Was I the only person awake in the hospital? In the whole, snowy city?
My husband slept on a pull-out bed; the snowstorm had closed his office for the day. I got out of bed, and Chloe stayed asleep. I tiptoed around, and Chloe stayed asleep. I touched things gingerly like they would break in my hands, and Chloe stayed asleep. I could’ve clomped around like an elephant: She was absolutely, positively, mouth-hanging-open asleep.
It was about 6:45 am. Did I dare leave the room to get a coffee and breakfast at Au Bon Pain in the lobby? I roused Brian enough to tell him where I was going. Then I grabbed my wallet, cell phone, glasses, and a thick novel, and practically ran out of the room. I stabbed the elevator button with nervous excitement.
Escape to pastry heaven
Downstairs, bundled-up doctors and nurses arrived in heavy, snow-dusted coats and hats for their 7:00 am shifts. The floor was wet from snow being tracked inside, and puddles formed where people stood for too long, like in front of the coffee carafes at Au Bon Pain.
I loaded a tray with freshly squeezed orange juice; a flaky, sweet-cheese croissant; a cup of French roast coffee; and a steaming bowl of steel-cut Irish oatmeal topped with brown sugar and a drizzle of maple syrup. I nestled myself into a booth with my decadent breakfast, snuggled into my sweatshirt, and got lost in my novel. I had made an escape into a warm, sweet-smelling world of pastry and coffee. I felt safe, calm, and content. And somehow, all of those feelings were concentrated into that bowl of nutty, steel-cut Irish oatmeal. It was hearty but sweet, nourishing but delicious. So warm and satisfying, and exactly what I was craving. I’ve never had a food match a feeling so closely.
I told Brian to call me when Chloe woke up, and expected my cell phone to ring at any second. But it never did. I stayed downstairs reading and savoring my breakfast for almost two hours. When I finally finished my coffee and closed my book, I felt as refreshed as if I’d just woken up from a long, satisfying sleep.
Oatmeal made from Irish steel-cut oats isn’t like a typical bowl of oatmeal. The more familiar oats that come in paper packets or cardboard drums are rolled oats, and the oatmeal that they produce is either gluey and gloppy or watery and loose, but always an icky gray color. Irish oats look and taste more like barley, but without barley's sort of sad, tree-bark flavor. Irish oats come in a tin, and there’s only one way to cook them: Slowly. In fact the “quick” cooking method involves soaking them overnight.
But slowly doesn’t mean difficult. Irish oats are cooked in a four-to-one ratio of water to oats; boil the water with a pinch of salt; add the oats and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally; add a bit more water if they look thirsty along the way. Eat them immediately or refrigerate for tomorrow morning (loosen them with a little milk, and they reheat beautifully in the microwave). To serve, top with anything: Dried fruit, granola, maple syrup, a sprinkling of brown sugar, slivered nuts, a splash of cream or buttermilk (a traditional topping). They’re creamy and nutty, and have a satisfying little pop when you chew them. Curled up on the couch with a fuzzy blanket and bowl of warm Irish oatmeal? I can’t think of a better winter morning.
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm on your face
And rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again
May god hold you in the palm of his hand