I grew up in a sensible household where extra sugar at the breakfast hour was largely verboten. If memory serves, this ban extended to the oatmeal, too—doled out rarely and plainly in a lumpy, bland mass. Oatmeal mostly signified as the color of (lumpy, bland) sweaters that my mother used to buy me. And so one of the great small pleasures of my adult life has been the realization that, like tofu, oatmeal is best thought of as a sponge that absorbs flavor from its toppings—such as molasses, maple syrup, and all manner of fruits and nuts and winsome unneccessaries. Food writer Irena Chalmers bemoaned, charmingly, that "[o]nce we sowed wild oats, now we cook them in the microwave," but if I put enough brown sugar on mine, it feels as if I'm doing a bit of both.
Throughout the cold months, I'm now a quick-cooking McCann's devotee. So you know my prejudices up front, I should say that McCann's represents, to me, the platonic ideal of oatmeal: Smooth, thick, and with a subtle nutty taste. (I feel the same way about Quaker's as The Wire's Jimmy McNulty feels about Bushmills.) But there are plenty of mornings where I'm not able to breakfast at home. So when I heard that McDonald's—which happens to be one of the first things I see when I emerge from the subway each work day—had recently begun selling oatmeal, I decided to put it to the test against the quickie-oat-offerings from Starbucks and Au Bon Pain.
A utilitarian, stick-to-your ribs foodstuff, oatmeal is also a delicate thing, easily ruined by too much water or too little water. It must be eaten at just the right moment or it congeals. And, of course, there's the issue of oat quality. Yet a little brown sugar will cover a multitude of sins, which is why the idea of fast-food oatmeal seems like a perfect one: Approximations of familiar food with hard-to-screw-up toppings—and as much sugar as your heart desires—are the specialty of the house at fast-food joints.
For the taste test, I enlisted the help of eight discerning Slate staffers gathered in our office. In the interest of time—I'd lugged the oatmeal through a wintry commute, and it was dangerously close to reaching the congealed stage—the taste test wasn't done blindly, but I'm a firm believer that taste is never really blind, that appearance influences our gustatory enjoyment. We ranked each oatmeal on a weighted scale for taste (50 percent), texture (30 percent), and packaging, including portion size and portability (20 percent) from one to five.
McDonald's ($1.99) McDonald's bills its oatmeal as "Fruit and Maple"-flavored, but the store I went to was all out of apple chunks, and the official Web site confusingly says the sweetener is "brown sugar" and a little bit of cream, not maple. Whatever the case may be, the sweetness (unoptional, pre-mixed-in) was rather alarming; our judges described it as "cloying," "gross," "artificial," mysteriously "banana-y," and tasting of "melted plastic." Things didn't improve on the texture front, either. Admittedly, there was some textural variation from cup to cup, since the woman who served me eyeballed the proportions. (The procedure, by the way, involves adding water from coffeepots into instant-mix and stirring.) On the whole, though, the oatmeal was soupy. One tester called it "smooth, but boring," the epicurean equivalent of a John Tesh single. Another said it slips too easily "under my tongue," making me wish for a Weird Al paean to McDonald's oatmeal via the Rolling Stones.
The lack of toppings was another common complaint. Robbed of our rightful apple chunks, we were left with only a raisin/craisin situation, when what the panel really wanted was a nut option. They further piled on, describing the packaging as "too vertical," and "low-market looking," and, in the cruelest cut of all, "unattractive, but who cares?" It was, though, a nicely modest portion, no overzealous supersizing in sight.
The fast food company's slogan for its newish product is, I think, rather telling in its use of the conditional: "McDonald's new oatmeal is so yummy, it could be your latest crave." It seems that even the sloganeers didn't want to declare anything too positively; it's possible—anything's possible! this is America!—that you could maybe kinda sorta crave it … if you've, say, just had some major oral surgery.
Taste: 1. 9
ABP ($2.99 for a medium) Au Bon Pain has been in the oatmeal game for longer than the other two chains, and does things slightly differently. Rather than quick-make individual portions, ABP ladles out servings from a big communal pot. This seems fitting: Since the chain's Francophilic, it's only natural that they'd apportion oatmeal via a social-democratic method. And yet the toppings are handled in a most American way—jars of brown sugar, honey, granola, raisins, chocolate chips, and other such options are set out on a counter, and customers may take as much as they desire.
There were no nuts on offer at the establishment I visited, much to the dismay of the panel, though a little Internet research tells me that almonds are, theoretically, an option. My judges were quite taken, however, with the superior quality of the APB brown sugar. One called it "Waldorf-Astoria brown sugar."
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.