The Permanent Thing Called Cereal
Sometimes, for your own mental well being, it is a meritorious act to remove yourself from the hustle-bustle of daily life, with its mind-boggling busyness, technological frenzy, ever-changing professional demands, and relentless pressure to be drawn into ephemeral fripperies, and instead reflect on what T.S. Elliot called the Permanent Things that bind us across time and space and unite the generations, the things that we know will long outlive our limited days on earth.
I speak, of course, of breakfast cereal. This is America's number one choice of morning food.
As with many of the Permanent Things, its origin is religious. In the ancient days, people ate very little fiber for breakfast. Then in the last quarter of the 19th century, a Protestant religious reformer who ran a sanatorium had the idea that eating grains was good for mind and spirit. The idea was then picked up by John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh-Day Adventist.
Specifically our minds are drawn to the brands that seem to have always been with us and always will be. They are permanent fixtures of the cultural landscape, as alive and present in the life of someone born a few years ago as those who were born many decades ago. Even today, a walk through the grocery aisle is a blast from the past for many of us. We feel nostalgia even as our children feel a sense of excitement at what is, for them, something completely new.
Nothing lifts the spirit like watching a young member of a new generation discover a classic we know so well. "Hey, Dad, can we get these great-tasting Smacks?" That phrase — which can be heard around the world — should be accompanied by music!
It is evidently very difficult to introduce a new cereal into the market. Which is as it should be. Consider the ever old, ever new. As you do, think of this. We all recognize these names from our childhood. The young today know them all too. Our children's children will know them too, mostly likely. How many icons of popular culture are there — brand names no less — of which this can be said?
Cheerios (since 1941, and still the most popular)
Shredded Wheat (since 1893)
Rice Krispies (since 1929)
Wheaties (since 1924)
Grape Nuts (since 1897)
Kellogg's Corn Flakes (since 1906)
Cap'n Crunch (since 1963)
Half of Americans eat cereal every day. We eat 2.7 billion packages of cereal every year. The wonderful cereal industry uses 816 million pounds of sugar every year to produce them.
Truly, Americans love cereal! But not as much as societies where tradition is valued even more highly than here. Ireland ranks number one in cereal consumption, England second, and Australia third. (All this data comes from here.)
And how marvelously impervious to the complaints of the puritans we are. Amazon sells a number of books denouncing cereal for its supposed dangers. How often do we hear complaints that these companies are attempting to sell junk food as if it were health food?
But we ignore it all, and just keep crunching away.
It's true, of course, that anyone with an all-cereal diet wouldn't fare well. But that's not what we are talking about here.
What makes cereal great? Of course it only takes a minute to prepare: pour, pour, eat. Also, I'm not kidding about its ability to link the generations. It is comfort food, a breakfast that we eat when we are very young and very old.
It's true that our tastes change. Young kids fall for every advertising gimmick: cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs! Middle-agers go for the grainy-health thing with the soothing voice. Never mind that it is basically the same stuff. We are what we eat, and we want to eat what we are. Cereal is there through all stages of life.
How happy are my memories from my mid-teen years, when I would get the largest mixing bowl in the house, pour in an entire box of Cap'n Crunch with Crunchberries, along with half a carton of milk, and start crunching away using the largest spoon I could find.
These are the memorable scenes from our "coming of age" that we carry with us throughout life even unto death.
There are some mysteries yet to solve in the cereal world. I've never understood why some cereals like Sugar Smacks come wrapped in foil, whereas others, like Froot Loops, come wrapped in plastic.
I wrote Kelloggs, and they sent back the following answer: "We base our choices for both inner and outer packaging materials on our need to deliver fresh product to stores in the best possible condition. We look at our packaging to control the absorption of moisture, control breakage and prevent any other type of damage that might occur during the shipping and handling of our foods."
Well, that's not quite was I was after, but good for them for answering at all!
I confess to some disappointments. As you might guess from the above, my number one top favorite cereal of all time is Cap'n Crunch with Crunchberries. When I was growing up there was only one kind of Crunchberry: red. The idea was to eat all the "crunch" and save the crunchberries for later (unless you are 15 and you no longer care).
Then somewhere along the way, some jerk decided that crunchberries should be many different colors, even though it is not the case in nature. So now Cap'n Crunch with Crunchberries comes with green, blue, purple, and who knows-what-else crunchberries. I don't know what's with the people who would dare to make such a change.
Respect the classics, I say!