The slow-cooked oats seemed, at least to me, a vast improvement. This oatmeal came the closest of all to approximating my beloved McCann's. Our judges were more divided: Some praised the nutty, traditional taste and wholesome, full-bodied texture. Others found it bland, woefully unsalted, and tasting a bit too much "like cardboard." Its "chewiness" was valued by some, disparaged by the others. Visible grains led to a "good-mouth feel," in one tester's charming phrase; another found fault with its "chunkiness." As for its "glutinous" consistency, one said "maybe a tad cement-y, but I like it that way"; other testers were less set in their ways and longed for an oatmeal that shared that quality.
At least we were united in deeming the portions a bit too American. The "medium" was declared overwhelming; the imagined enormity of the "large," too much for us to even contemplate.
Starbucks ($2.45) Starbucks racked up a fair amount of buzz a few years ago when it introduced its oatmeal, and a couple of our panelists outed themselves as regular consumers. (One even endorsed it on Slate's Culture Gabfest.) The oatmeal had a far more distinct flavor, sans toppings, than any of the other samples—sort of salty and slightly sour, prompting a prevailing sentiment of "delish!"
The Starbucks oatmeal-making process is similar to that of McDonald's, though the hot water machines are more expensive and the baristas more careful. Still, like any instant oatmeal it can vary wildly from serving to serving, with an extra stir or extra drop of water altering the very fabric of the dish. Some called the texture dry, others mushy, but I think the tester who called it out for having the worst of both worlds ("mushy with specks of unreduced oats") hit the nail right on the head.
Starbucks offers a plethora of toppings in individual packets, including the much-desired nuts, dried fruit, and brown sugar (which apparently didn't measure up to the exalted ABP sort: "too sugary"). I found opening each container to be a bit of a pain, but small packets are certainly the most time-efficient way to get customers in and out of a coffee shop in a hurry. The portion sizes and sturdy, "attractive" containers were declared just right as well optimally constructed to retain heat.
So it seems as if Starbucks had the broadest appeal—and inspired the most untrammeled adoration; it was the only one of the samples to receive a perfect five rating in any category, from a couple of different judges. But I'd humbly submit that my fellow panelists were misguided and swayed by their briny, nutty fixations. As someone who eats for texture just as much as taste, I'd pick Au Bon Pain's oatmeal over Starbucks' any day. As for McDonald's, well, if you find yourself there for breakfast, it's very possible that the sorrow occasioned by its saccharine, soggy oatmeal will do your heart more damage than its Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit.