Gruel is a food preparation consisting of some type of cereal—oat, wheat or rye flour, or rice—boiled in water or milk. It is a thinner version of porridge that may be more often drunk than eaten and need not even be cooked. Historically, gruel, often made from millet, hemp or barley, or in hard times, of chestnut flour and even the less tannic acorns of some oaks, has been the staple of the human diet, especially that of the peasantry. The importance of gruel as a form of sustenance is especially noted for invalids and for recently-weaned children. Hot malted milk is a form of gruel, although manufacturers like Ovaltine and Horlicks avoid calling it gruel, due to the negative associations attached to the word through novels like Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.
Gruel consumption has traditionally been associated with poverty. Gruel is a colloquial expression of any watery or liquidy food that is of unknown character, e.g. pea soup; soup is derived from sop, the slice of bread which was soaked with broth or thin gruel.
Gruel was the staple food of the ancient Greeks, for whom roasted meats were the extraordinary feast that followed sacrifice, even among heroes, and "in practice bread was a luxury eaten only in towns". Roman plebeians "ate the staple gruel of classical times, supplemented by oil, the humbler vegetables and salt fish", for gruel could be prepared without access to the communal ovens that baked bread. In the Middle Ages the peasant could avoid the tithe exacted, usually in kind, for grain ground by the miller of the landowner's mill by roasting the grains to make them digestible, and grinding small portions in a mortar at home and, in lieu of cooking the resulting paste on the hearthstone, simmering it in a cauldron with water, or, luxuriously, with milk.
In the Western Hemisphere, maize gruels were once one of the main food sources for many Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Maya and Aztecs. Atole was a preparation of ground maize that was often flavored with chili and salt. It could be consumed or drunk as an important calorie source and as a thirst quencher.
Because of the stigma attached to the name, rice gruels (eaten throughout Asia) are normally referred to as congee.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives an etymology of Middle English gruel from the same word in Old French, both of them depending from a source in Late Latin grutellum, a diminutive, as the form of the word demonstrates, possibly from a Frankish *gr t, surmised on the basis of a modern cognate grout.
In the English speaking world, gruel is remembered as the food of the child workhouse inmates in Charles Dickens' Industrial Revolution novel, Oliver Twist (1838); the workhouse was supplied with "an unlimited supply of water" and "small quantities of oatmeal". When Oliver asks the master of the workhouse for some more, he is struck a blow to the head for it. The "small saucepan of gruel" waiting upon Ebenezer Scrooge's hob in Dickens' A Christmas Carol emphasizes how miserly Scrooge is. References to gruel in popular culture today continue to refer to miserly or starvation conditions.
A counter example of literary reference to gruel can be found in Jane Austen's Emma, wherein the title character's well-off but hypochondriacal father, Mr. Woodhouse, is depicted as most fond of gruel, "thin, but not too thin", for sustenance, health and good character. Gruel is also mentioned frequently in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bront as a daily staple meal, even amongst the largely middle-class families featured in the novel.
als:Mehlsuppe ca:Gruel da:V lling de:Mehlsuppe nv:T shch n / Naad doot izh es:Gruel fr:Gaudes id:Bubur sumsum ms:Bubur sum-sum sv:V lling