Like all elite athletes and abject slobs, I understand the importance of staying well carbohydrated; fruits and vegetables are cute, but I stick mainly to the grains, and I take those mostly in the form of beer, whiskey, and pasta. But despite my gravitation toward the crummier end of the natural foods spectrum, I could still make a case for the humble (and rarely fermented) oat as king of grains.
I eat oatmeal like a regular person, with maple syrup and dried cranberries swirled in and Grape-Nuts scattered atop—but I also use pulverized oats in meatballs and veggie burgers, and when I'm feeling ambitious and mercury-depleted I'll even coat a hunk of tuna in pistachio-oatmeal dust. And it should go without saying that when I'm looking for a breakfast stout, I'll opt for oatmeal over coffee every time.
Yet despite my respect for the oat, I don't eat a lot of restaurant oatmeal, because oatmeal is really cheap and easy to make at home. This is the same reason I don't tend to order spaghetti or English muffin pizzas: Just because a thing is independently awesome doesn't always mean you should pay someone else a premium to prepare that thing for you.
But Starbucks is very proud of its oatmeal these days, and on occasion I'll find myself hungry and hurried in a Starbucks before they've loaded the tarragon chicken salad sandwich case for the day, so I decided it was in my best interest to investigate their new oatmeal options.
The Starbucks website claims they offer "steel-cut oatmeal with old-fashioned rolled oats and classic toppings", in four flavors: Brown Sugar; Nut Medley; Dried Fruit; and Hearty Blueberry, which includes agave nectar and a nut-and-seed blend along with the berries. I told the cashier I wanted to try all the oatmeal options, and we had a really confusing conversation that made me wish it weren't at least 10 years too late to make jokes about how hard it is to get your order straight at Starbucks. The cashier was bright and attentive, so I'm going to blame corporate headquarters. Or maybe myself? No, corporate.
At any rate, after we babbled a couple of laps around the menu, I decided to skip the brown sugar topping—for information on that one, see below and replace "brown sugar" whenever I describe something that is not explicitly oat-derived—and went with three that my receipt calls "Blueberry Oatmeal," "Classic Oatmeal: Fruit, Nut & Seed," and "Classic Oatmeal: Dried Fruit."
The blueberry set me back $3.45 and the other two were $2.75 apiece.
I placed my order then sat in a dark corner for a couple of minutes to gather my thoughts before picking up my breakfast. Starbucks oatmeal is served in cardboard bowls with lids that say, "For tastiest results, wait three minutes, add your toppings, and enjoy." Then right next to that instruction there's a sticker that instructs you to "steep 5 minutes." Man, all those bad '90s comedians were right: Starbucks is really complicated!
Near as I can figure, Starbucks' oat protocol goes like this: The oatmealista adds hot water to dry oats, slaps on the lid, hunts around for the appropriate topping packet, and calls your name. Then you wait for 3, 5, or perhaps 8 minutes while your oats plump up and fall back down to room temperature, then you mix your toppings in and eat.
My version of Hearty Blueberry didn't come with any nuts, seeds, or nectar. What I got was a luke-cool tub of oats with a quarter inch of unabsorbed water and a packet of 19 blueberries. I don't know if my oatmealista used the wrong water tap on this one or what, but it wasn't hot enough to get the job done no matter how long I waited. The blueberries were mostly plump and alternately flavorless and sour.
The Fruit, Nut, and Seed topping blend was much better, mostly because the water was hot enough to cook the oats, but also because the blend of dried figs, pepitas, dried cranberries, and tiny flecks of almond contributed a nice combination of sweetness and crunch. The oatmeal itself was good, too, with no suspicious chemical flavors or other untoward adulterants.
The Dried Fruit wasn't as interesting, because the golden raisins, zante currant raisins, and cherries lacked the textural contrast of the Fruit, Nut, and Seed packet. This could be remedied by smuggling in your own Grape-Nuts, but even an avowed oatmeal fan might think that's a little too much effort after already having a tricky ordering conversation, shelling out $3 for a 1/4 cup of oatmeal, worrying about how long to let it steep, taking a one in three (in my case) chance that the water won't get fully absorbed, and then stirring in his own toppings.