Some people out there are going to disagree with me, but the best oatmeal on the Odd Trail is absolutely the stuff they make at Jackhound’s Provisions, which is a little west of my hometown of Fixture. You can disagree, but you’ll be wrong. Or maybe you’ve never been to Jackhound’s, in which case, I forgive you as long as you stop what you’re doing and go right now. Today’s the day. It’s Oatmeal Day!
Every year on October 29th basically everybody in the Ida Hornette school district skips classes to pile into cars to drive the forty miles between Fixture and the old gas station with the big plaster beast on the roof (jackrabbit? jackalope? really ugly greyhound? We don’t really know). There’s no parking to speak of, but there’s a big square of field next to it that’s almost big enough to hold the fleet of beat-up jalopies that pass for perfect cars for the teenage driver out here. There are two tiny formica tables inside the gas station and a couple hundred hungry students, so Fred Skinner and whoever else is working the gas station that day bring breakfast out to us.
By the time the first car pulls up, there’s a row of dented pots bubbling on an outdoor stove I think Fred’s father built when the tradition first started getting out-of-hand back in the forties. Next to the stove there’s a picnic table loaded with tins and canisters and jars full of granola and brown sugar and raisins and dried cherries and cinnamon and local honey and sweet butter and chocolate chips and whatever else it’s entered into Fred’s mind might be nice on oatmeal. One year there was a jar of damson plum jam that, according to the label, a certain May Skinner put up in 1972. Another year he’d invented a kind of apple butter that tasted like cider. You never know what you’re going to get.
At the beginning of the line, you pick up your chipped vessel from a pile of mismatched crockery (somehow “dishes” doesn’t convey the pile the same way “crockery” does). It might be a bowl, it might be a mug; one year I got my oatmeal in a small deep-dish pie plate. You pass before the row of bubbling pots, where the guy who would otherwise be pumping gas fills your dish with a dented ladle. It’s October, and usually very cold, so you learn after your first trip to keep your mitten thumbs out of the way. You say your thanks and move on to the tableful of oatmeal accessories and load up your breakfast. If you’ve been here before, you’ve got a spoon tucked into your coat pocket because while Fred Skinner has hundreds of things that will hold oatmeal, he only has ten spoons and those are mostly tied up on the condiment table. Then you go to wherever your friends have spread a blanket over the spiky ground of the fallow field behind the gas station, open your thermos of coffee, and enjoy your personal breakfast concoction. You eat slowly, because at some point Fred Skinner himself, dressed in a herringbone suit and a deerstalker cap with the ear flaps tied down, will pass among the crowds with a whole nutmeg in one hand and an absolutely terrifying grater in the other. Somehow he will manage to grate the nutmeg and not his gnarled fingers until you say “when,” and then he will amble off to the next group of kids.
Once you’re finished, you take your bowl over to a wall spigot or maybe the old standing water pump (particularly if you’re a guy who likes to show off), and you wash up your dish. (It’s traditional to read all kinds of meaning into it if somebody offers to do your washing-up for you. It’s kind of like offering to carry a girl’s books or something.) Dishes are stacked neatly beside the stove for the next folks who come by. If you’re a kitcheny-sort of person, you might have brought a homemade goodie with you to leave for Fred Skinner as a thank you; people often bring honey or jam or granola or that kind of thing, and it’s considered a high compliment if your jar turns up on the table as a topping for next year’s oatmeal day. Then you pile into your car with your five closest friends and drive back home. Some go back to classes, some don’t; no teacher at Ida Hornette bothers with anything important on Oatmeal Day, and more than a few show up at Jackhound’s themselves. The adults usually start showing up later, though. It’s sort of understood that breakfast belongs to the kids and lunch to their parents.
As I type this I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my friend Sally’s rustbucket. We’re headed home, and trying to decide if we’ll try and make it to afternoon classes. Neither of us are usually skippers, but it’s Oatmeal Day, and the second-best oatmeal on the Odd Trail is at Judy’s Holme Street Diner in Monkfort, about an hour north of here, and we think maybe by the time we get there we might be ready to eat again.