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breakfast cereal

21 april 2023

Breakfast cereal, as Kathryn Dolan makes clear in her global history for Reaktion, is really two types of food. In the US they can go by the same name, simply "cereal." But we usually distinguish "hot" and "cold" cereals. Hot cereal is mushy and cold cereal, on its way to being mushy, is crunchy. When you're a little kid, you can't grasp how the two substances form a family. Worse yet, when you learn world history, you cover the epochal domestication of cereals, which to an American always sound more like Froot Loops and Cap'n Crunch than einkorn and emmer. There are even trendy American "grain-free cereals" which consist of pure oxymoron.

Hot cereal predated cold, Dolan establishes, by several millennia. After domesticating cereal – or before, because otherwise why would they have domesticated cereal – people began to stew the grains in pots and eat the ensuing mush. The tradition is unbroken down to the present day, whether one calls the mush porridge, congee, or grits.

Savory porridges, which blend into mixed-vegetable stews like pottages or ratatouilles, have in many cultures been all-day meal options, not special breakfast foods. Several chili recipes I make are thickened with bulghur or quinoa, making them at least honorary porridges.

I have mixed feelings about hot breakfast cereals. My father favored a vile concoction called Wheatena that combined the pasty texture of porridge with bitter flavor notes. I would eat Quaker Oats or Cream of Wheat, but both had to be liberally doused with butter and brown sugar. The amount of sweetener needed to eat these insipid foods somewhat defeats the point of them. Hot cereal is good for you because it has fiber and complex carbohydrates, but when it becomes a bowl full of sugar it loses its advantages.

Of course, when I was a kid, we loaded sugar onto cold cereal as well. Cold cereals, Dolan argues, were in their very conception disgustingly quasi-edible. Dolan's description of James Caleb Jackson's original 1860s cold-cereal process is off-putting:

Jackson started by baking a large flour wafer that he then broke into smaller, nugget-shaped biscuits. … [it] was excessively tough, requiring overnight soaking in water or milk in order to be palatable. (39)
Such gravelly aggregates heighten the basic contradiction of cold cereal: the worse it tastes, the better it is for you. Ghastly stuff like the All-Bran of my youth or the ancient-grains bowls of the 21st century is enough to turn you into a Pop-Tart addict.

American cold-cereal innovators eventually hit on formulas that provided enough natural sweetness, or a dash of added sugar, to reach the canonical American recipes: Grape-Nuts, cornflakes, Cheerios. Of course, the least added sugar was like a push down a slippery slope. By my childhood, in the 1960s, you could spoon sugar onto your Rice Krispies or shredded wheat, or you could buy brands where the sugar component predominated over the grain: Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops, Sugar Smacks. Or, as with Lucky Charms, a bland cereal mixed with what was blatantly candy.

I was too old to experience the heyday of Boo-Berry and Count Chocula, but from what I can tell, American cold cereal has gone the way of American yoghurt: an originally balanced food that has become a sugar-delivery system.

Still, to my elderly palate nowadays, a bowl of cornflakes or shredded wheat, with unsweetened almondmilk, hits just the right note and does not send me on a sugar bender. Cold cereal is an unnatural foodstuff but a satisfying one, and it is convenient as hell.

Dolan's chapter on cereal in the arts centers largely on porridges, in paintings and sometimes in poems like Joel Barlow's "Hasty-Pudding" (88-89). Probably the most-read literary reference to hot cereal is Margaret Wise Brown's invocation of "a bowl full of mush" in Goodnight Moon.

Cold cereal is less celebrated in high culture, though of course Andy Warhol could not resist making an icon of Kellogg's Corn Flakes (91). Dolan does not mention Quentin Tarantino's fascination with Fruit Brute, a cereal which once existed but lives on as a footnote to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Cereal in music is limited to advertising jingles, though those can be powerfully earwormy. About once a week I find myself singing

Get yourself go with Cheerios
Energy O's that help you grow
Get yourself go-go power with power O's
Come on strong with Cheerios
Start feeling your Cheerios
And it is impossible to hear G.Love and Special Sauce's "Milk and Cereal" (in part a medley of the great jingles) even once without singing it for the rest of your life.

Reaktion Edible volumes always include recipes. Dolan's tend to be muesli mixes or congees. Of course she includes Rice Krispie Treats, but also Weet-Bix chocolate chip cookies. "Weet-Bix" is the original Australian spelling of a cereal I first encountered in England as Weetabix, and you can buy intermittently and regionally in the US. Weetabix is OK dry. Exposed to milk, it turns into a dour slop the consistency of used Kleenex. It has to be better in a cookie than for breakfast.

Last week I decided I would try the granddaughter, now two years old, on milk and cereal. She vigorously ruled out the combination. She will happily drink milk out of a bottle while also munching on Rice Chex from a bowl. But the idea of pouring the milk on top of the cereal was a bridge too far. We'll keep working on this.

Dolan, Kathryn Cornell. Breakfast Cereal: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2023.