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Porridge for Parkinson's! Recipe included!
A Vancouver couple's novel fundraiser coming to Toronto Nov. 10
John Lee
National Post
Dan Heringa
BUT THE SMALL BOWL WAS JUST RIGHT: Noel MacDonald, son Mac and Marg Meikle got the whole Porridge for Parkinson's movement started last year with the first event, in their Vancouver home. Meikle was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1999.

Porridge connoisseurs, and those yet to be converted to its glutinous pleasures, will be out in force Nov. 10 for a Toronto fundraiser that many hope will become a cross-Canada "bowl movement."

Porridge for Parkinson's, a breakfast event themed around the most unlikely of party foods, will warm up communities across the country in the next few months, combining a tongue-in-cheek reverence for rib-sticking oatmeal with a drive to raise thousands of dollars to address a neurological disorder affecting as many as 100,000 Canadians.

"Some people are saying they'll come with their cheque books but won't eat the porridge," said Sheila Knox, education co-ordinator at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum, who is organizing the in-home bash with neighbour Donna Walsh. "We'll have other food, but I think there will be converts to the porridge. I might even convert myself."

The Toronto event, with 200 invited friends and neighbours, aims to raise $10,000 for the Parkinson's fund at the University of Toronto's Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases.

The party was inspired by last fall's first Porridge for Parkinson's event, staged in Vancouver by Knox's friend Marg Meikle and her husband, Noel MacDonald. The mid-forties couple and their young son, Mac, dreamt up the idea as a response to Meikle's Parkinson's diagnosis in 1999.

"When the diagnosis finally came, we felt we had to do something. First we went on a [fundraising] walk, but I hated getting everyone out and seeing everyone sick. We began wondering if we could do something in our home with our new kitchen," said Meikle, a celebrated, award-winning writer and CBC Radio's one-time Answer Lady.

Borrowing the low-cost porridge idea from a local church fundraising breakfast -- and attracted by the catchy alliteration of the Porridge for Parkinson's name -- the couple tentatively sent out invites for their first event last year. Even then, Meikle said she wasn't sure who would turn up on a grey Sunday morning to partake of a food rarely associated with having a good time.

In the end, the porridge idea turned out to be just right. Around 200 people packed into her cozy Vancouver home, bringing friends and family to a novel event that, with the help of a donations basket and an impromptu silent auction, raised a piping hot $17,000 from a total outlay of less than $300.

In recent months, Meikle's symptoms -- which can include tremors, rigidity and clinical depression -- have stabilized, leading to a greater day-to-day management of the disease's effects. She's planning to fly in for the Toronto event before returning for a second helping of her own Vancouver party, scheduled for Nov. 24.

The Vancouver event beneficiary is the Pacific Parkinson's Research Institute, a fundraising body for the internationally renowned Pacific Parkinson's Research Centre, based at the University of British Columbia. Its chairman, Dale Parker, believes Porridge for Parkinson's is a positive response to a growing issue.

"The cure for Parkinson's is still a mystery, and it's a problem that's increasingly affecting Canada and its ageing population. Porridge for Parkinson's is a great idea because it's at the right time of day for sufferers and it's also fun -- even for those who don't like porridge," said Parker.

MacDonald, chef for both Vancouver events and also the upcoming Toronto bash, is used to people wrinkling their noses at the idea of a porridge feast. But his arsenal of culinary tricks can turn many oatmeal skeptics into lip-smacking enthusiasts.

"We're actually playing on the fact that people think porridge is a bit disgusting. That adds to the fun. Most people have only tried instant oatmeal, but real porridge is different. There are always lots of converts," said MacDonald, a researcher at Business in Vancouver newspaper.

Top-quality ingredients are the primary requirement. "There are no substitutes for steel-cut oats, which are also amazingly cheap," said MacDonald. He estimates that approximately eight kilograms feeds 200 people for around $15. But the trick is to include plenty of mouth-watering additions.

Brushing aside suggestions of taste-bud bribery, MacDonald said the Vancouver party will feature a sweet smorgasbord of porridge toppings including cream, brown sugar, organic applesauce and a marshmallows and sprinkles kids' bar. The hit of last year's event was a port and dried fruit compote, heaped extravagantly on dishes which, in some cases, contained little porridge.

Along with the upcoming Toronto and Vancouver events, Calgary hosted the first 2002 Porridge for Parkinson's party in October, raising $1,500 from 50 guests in a couple of hours. Seattle friends are also planning an event and -- in true taking-coals-to-Newcastle fashion -- Meikle's relatives are considering a porridge party in Avoch, Scotland, in the new year.

But the biggest helping of Porridge for Parkinson's parties is scheduled for February in Newfoundland. The Atlantic Canada community, perhaps more easily persuaded of the warming effects of a steaming bowl of porridge, is planning several breakfasts.

Patricia Morrissey, executive director of Parkinson Society Newfoundland and Labrador, was immediately attracted to the Porridge for Parkinson's idea when she heard about the first Vancouver party.

"We don't have a large population here and [fundraising] walks and dinners have been overdone, but in February you need something that'll stick to your ribs," she said.

The agency -- one of 13 regional partners of Parkinson Society Canada -- is planning a major St. John's event, featuring entertainment, a silent auction and a large porridge breakfast, with pancakes for the unconverted. And there'll be at least four smaller events in homes across the region.

"It will be fun, but the bottom line is that every dollar raised could be the answer," said Morrissey. "We hope this will become an annual, signature event for us and also a great national event."

Sensing a growing appetite, Meikle and MacDonald have developed a Web site (www.porridgeforparkinsons.com) to help others plan Porridge for Parkinson's events. The free online kit includes tips, recipes and an invitation template, and there are plans to add a scrapbook record of porridge parties large and small.

"It's not just about events with 200 people. Inviting four people over for breakfast can raise $30 and that's important, too," said Meikle.

- The recipe that launched a bowl movement -- in five easy steps:

Serves 3 to 4

3 cups water

1 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup fresh steel-cut oats

1/4 teaspoon salt

1) Bring the water and milk to simmer over medium heat in a large saucepan.

2) Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium heat in a medium skillet until it begins to foam. Add the oats and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until golden and fragrant with a butterscotch aroma (takes about 2 minutes).

3) Stir the oats into the liquid, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes until thickened like gravy.

4) Add the salt, simmer and continue stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon handle until thick and creamy (takes 7-10 minutes).

5) Remove from heat and let stand, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

© Copyright  2002 National Post

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