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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1180025966/gallery_29805_1195_33675.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Chris Amirault

Like you, perhaps, I've had a long and primarily joyous relationship to breakfast cereal. I reached childhood just as the transcendent sugared cereals hit the market. I was conceived in 1962, the year that General Mills combined Cheerios with Circus Peanuts to give the world Lucky Charms, and Cap'n Crunch and I were both born in 1963, a fact which I celebrated bowlfully deep into college. My brother, Toby, was conceived a year later when Froot Loops were rolled out, and he outlived his birth-year twins, the Cap'n wannabes alien Quisp and miner Quake, by nearly three decades [the brand was relaunched in 1999 -- Ed.].

Since my brother and I were so close in age, for me cereal and sibling have always been intertwined. We were a family built to fuel the marketing juggernauts of processed foods during the 1960s and 1970s, and my brother and I competed both in the aisles and at the table. A devotee of the brown sludge that remained at bowl's bottom, Toby poured excess milk at the outset and then retained it through repeat servings of Count Chocula; I found this practice despicable, and instead poured just enough cold, fresh milk to get me through each of multiple bowls of Franken Berry. Of course, our rivalry was reasonable: like all sensible children at the time, we were in complete agreement that late-comer Boo Berry was an ill-conceived, poorly balanced product that only wicked losers ate.

We also shared disbelief about the strange world of "health cereals." I'm not talking about half-baked concepts like those proposed by Dig ‘Em, the spokesfrog for Sugar Smacks, who danced while the jingle asserted that the cereal was "fortified with eight vitamins." I'm talking about morning mysteries like shredded wheat and granola, which would pop up in the pantry now and then. Why in the world, I wondered, would anyone suffer through a bowl of that crap?

No surprise, then, that my first notice of Grape Nuts in the house sent me into self-amusing jokes about TV spokesman Euell Gibbons eating pine cones. Throughout the jabbering, my mother munched gamely away at her bowl, refusing to acknowledge her moronic sons. Growing curious, I set aside my Honey Combs and poured out a few brown nuggets to sample. They were parched, had no flavor, and crunched harder than anything I'd ever eaten before. I was befuddled, declaring, "They taste like sticks." My brother sniggered.

"Fine," she sighed, grabbing one last spoonful. "They're not for you, are they?"

"Good thing," I said, and I returned to my bowl to finish off the last few honeycombs while she placed her unfinished bowl into the sink. When I did the same with my bowl, I saw the last forlorn, sopping bites of Grape Nuts piled, unfinished, in hers.

The stuff looked… well, it really did look like crap.

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I thought about my cereal days a lot this past March. For the few millennia that human culture has been around to care one way or the other, spring has been associated with growth and regeneration. If you paid attention when reading the Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer, or Dylan Thomas, you know that we're supposed to look at the cold mud of March and see possibility and life.

I've always understood that sentiment abstractly, but it never made much sense to me in my gut. Until recently, I chalked up my chilly relationship to the supposed joys of vernality to my being a third-generation New Englander with all prior generations hailing from further north. At times, I wondered whether I, the child of a teacher who would himself go on to teach, saw spring as the end of a long, tiring year and September as another chance to start again.

But that's as maybe. Since my brother's suicide in the springtime of 2001, I look at the cold mud of March and see cold, lifeless, bitter mud. There's not much to tell: schizophrenic for years, he died during shortly after his second attempt in three days, fighting off a suicide watch guard, shattering his hospital window with a chair, and diving out to a rooftop a few stories below, crushing gravel into his face and his vertebrae into each other. There's nothing yet redemptive to me about this memory; it's all, still, just shit.

As March 13 rolls inexorably closer, my body begins to mark the anniversary of his death in strange ways, and given my relationship to food it's no surprise that most involve eating. I find myself grinding my teeth, chewing nothing in particular, to mark time, assert frustration, or dream. When I look in the mirror, I fixate on my midriff and see my brother's substantial belly, more and more assertive above my belt. During dinner, at once keenly distracted and vaguely anxious, I find myself overeating -- one more dry pork chop; an extra dish of lousy ice cream -- without purpose, awareness, or pleasure.

This spring's anniversary announced its slow arrival with a new twist: I became constipated. The armchair Freudian reader will no doubt see this as the logical conclusion of a series of hysterical symptoms linking both phantom and excessive food consumption to body dysmorphic disorder, and I'm predisposed to agree. But over the course of several mornings when, full of too much food and indigestible history, I'd sit, never strain, and hope for a bit more than nothing, I came to believe that the therapy I needed to resolve my dilemma was less Freudian than Kelloggian.

I refer, of course, to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, whose late 19th century therapeutic methods at his Battle Creek Sanitarium set the stage for foodie hand-wringing and contortionist diets up to our own era. Kellogg's methods survive mainly as bucktoothed satire, as in T. C. Boyle's "Road To Wellville," and as joke butt, as in Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," where Kellogg is sketched as "quaintly quackish" and his sanitarium as "legendarily nutty."

But Kellogg deserves his propers. He was the first of the modern US food faddists, advocating nuts over meat, pumping yogurt down one end and up the other of his patients, and, with his brother, starting the eponymous cereal company in order to promote the benefits of cereal grains to break fasts and loosen bowels. I'm not here to raise the flag for John Harvey Kellogg's full regimen -- I didn't give up meat for carrot sticks or go in for Yoplait enemas -- though you have to admit that making a total commitment to the programs of America's first true believer in scientific eating would have a quaint sort of kitsch value in the 21st century. No, I'm here to admit something far more ignominious, something that my mother knew back at that kitchen table while my brother and I scoffed.

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Food for me has always been, first and foremost, about pleasure, even fun, and childhood breakfast cereals were the apotheosis of both. Later in adult life, I added an occasional concern, peering at the box's side panels to see if the cereal was healthy relative to whatever information I deemed worrisome at the time: sugar, red dye #2, high fructose corn syrup.

While pleasure and health still structure most of my eating, breakfast has lately become positively Kelloggian, thanks utterly to, well, Kellogg's. While I'm sure some other middle agers flush with anticipation when they read about the American Heart Association's "criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol for healthy people over age 2," I surely do not, and I'm proud to admit that the equation 23g carbs – 10g fiber = 13g net carbs makes no sense to me, mathematically or otherwise. I'm certainly not about to dig into a bowl of unruly twigs lacking all discernible flavor for the vague promise of health I cannot feel or comprehend. No, I want results I can feel deep in my gut, and I want them tomorrow morning, preferably with a thorough yet gentle touch. And that's what I get from my daily bowl of All-Bran.

The gang at Kellogg's has me pegged. Indeed, the packaging for All-Bran, the ne plus ultra of demographic cereal precision, is the celebratory wrapping paper for colonic crack. The word "fiber" appears no less than eleven times on the back of the current box. The copy alternately treats bran as nutrient ("Getting your fiber from high fiber foods rather than supplements has the added benefit of providing other vitamins and minerals"), stimulant ("Fiber has a positive influence on the digestion process from start to finish"), and opiate ("New Users: Increase your fiber intake gradually. Intestinal gas may occur until your body adjusts. If digestive pain occurs consult your doctor and avoid laxatives").

Having a hard time spotting similarly fiber-packed cereals in the Kellogg's line? Just look for the "easy-to-spot banners designed to help you select cereals to meet your goals for a healthier lifestyle and greater well-being." And in case you don't know what exactly "greater well-being" means, just take a look at the box's mascot, an androgynous, feature-free figure, hand- and fingerless arms waving in air, footless legs indicating midleap joy, all without further details so that you can concentrate on the two loops of curved arrow encircling the figure's gut. It's as precise a performance of gastrointestinal ecstasy as can be: bowel movement as orgasm.

Now, reader, you may be chuckling away, taking safe distance in denial or the cynicism of youth. But if you're like me –- and, five'll get you ten, if you were born before 1965 you are -- you may read these lines from the lead copy at the top of the box and see a hopeful vision of many joyous tomorrows:

"Having Kellogg's All-Bran Original cereal for breakfast is an easy, convenient, and nutritious first step to providing you with energy and healthy digestion for your day. It's what you need to get happy inside -– and when you are happy on the inside it shows on the outside."

It shouldn't surprise that bran, the brown outside we usually strip away to make things smoother, whiter, nicer, should be so very good at making our insides happier. Whatever his late Victorian fanaticism, Kellogg knew something about this modern inversion of outside and in, with his regimens of fiber and exercise, of sunbaths and enemas. Perhaps for all his quackery he might have understood how breakfast could shift my sense of having a belly from external vision to internal sense, or how the death of someone with whom I shared thousands of meals would announce its arrival every year in the deepest regions of my stomach.

Maybe, maybe not. But as I confront my body's annual, visceral remembrance of a little boy's milk-stained chin, gleaming below his sated smile, while I finish my own bowl of All-Bran, I wonder if Kellogg wasn't right to think that it all comes down to life's roughage and shit, two sides of the same coin, neither very different from the other.

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Chris Amirault (aka, well, chrisamirault) is Director of Operations, eG Forums. He also runs a preschool and teaches in Providence, RI.

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As I started to read this, I found myself laughing out loud, as I was also born in 1963 and remember the days when I would put sugar on my Cocoa Puffs and eat an entire box of Apple Jacks in a single sitting (and the roof of your mouth would pay dearly for that). I thought of how great it would be to eat like that again, without fear of diabetes or obesity -- where the biggest fear was being punished by your Mom when the cool Quisp Cosmic Clouder gun that shot out poofs of flour made a mess of the sofa.

But then as I read on, I realized how we are forced to make those adult choices, where our bodies demand us to forego our childhood desires. I find myself choosing the breakfast cereal that has the least offensive taste. I find that adding blueberries or bananas to the cardboard flakes makes them somewhat manageable. Oh, and it's skim milk all the way, too -- whole milk will kill you and bind you up!

Of course, I still grab a small handful of the kids' Cinnamon Swirls, knowing that I'll never eat an entire bowl. And I find myself thinking, "Man, how can they eat so much of those sugar bombs?" I still have the desire, but not the ability. Yes, I may be becoming a cereal curmudgeon, but I won't let go all the way, as I always have that perfect compromise waiting for me in the pantry: Frosted Mini-Wheats. All the fiber with the bonus sugar, too. And even better, the kids ask me for a handful of those little fiber-packets now and then!

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I related to your article on 2 different levels. From the mega hype commerical sweet cereal vantage point, I am also a child of that era and relate to the turn around in later years. Essentially going from the excitement of sugar, prizes, and media hype to the "eat what is good for me brown stuff". My only child never got into the sweet cereal thing, and with the overwhelming amount of media input these days I doubt any child could be as excited as we were with a new product or prize. On the more gut level I got a connection that we have as people who care about food. We seem to have an emotional and memory bond to food in our past that defines us. I also have a food that kicks my butt around the anniversary of my mother's last "successful" attempt. Not cereal, but a special veggie soup with chewie dumplings. I crave it with a passion then, but can't bring myself to make it in case, I think, the reality does not match the memory. Life is strange but wonderful. Thank you.

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Interesting how the Spring itself has taken on the aspect of a ritualistic day such as a standard holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas, in your story, Chris - with a food that is summoned to mind along with the specific time and the memories.

One of those flip-flop mindthings where one feels one is supposed to be celebrating but somehow . . . well of course there is always that somehow. And you are not alone in feeling this thing, this holiday oddness, about the tastes of the food and how the the date(s) the food is linked to simply take on an odd tenor that is totally opposite of what is "expected". A lot of people have these holiday food and memory hot-links that are not so jolly-making as one might wish.

Not that that makes any of it taste any better.

But there is something I found that might be useful for the season of memory and odd tastes. Something to wear as either a warning to those around that indeed this is the time to beware of pushing the wrong buttons inadvertantly, perhaps, or else just as a rebellious waving of a fist in the air at the world, a fighting back with a jolly brightness of its own.

Here it is. (Scroll down to see closer detail.)

I might get one for myself, just because it's sort of cute. In an odd way. :smile:

P.S. Credit where credit is due: Found the link to this from the blog Will Work for Food.

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Well, it's come to this: FiberOne cereal every single day for breakfast.

But how fun to be eating it while reading such a thoughtful and personal piece!

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Thanks for the kind words.

As I started to read this, I found myself laughing out loud, as I was also born in 1963 and remember the days when I would put sugar on my Cocoa Puffs and eat an entire box of Apple Jacks in a single sitting (and the roof of your mouth would pay dearly for that). 

Oh, man. I remember that as well. Yeeowch.

But then as I read on, I realized how we are forced to make those adult choices, where our bodies demand us to forego our childhood desires.  I find myself choosing the breakfast cereal that has the least offensive taste.  I find that adding blueberries or bananas to the cardboard flakes makes them somewhat manageable.  Oh, and it's skim milk all the way, too -- whole milk will kill you and bind you up! 

I've gotta do 2%, personally, with the All Bran. It seems only fair to allow myself some remote sense of pleasure.

On the more gut level I got a connection that we have as people who care about food. We seem to have an emotional and memory bond to food in our past that defines us.

As you can tell, I certainly believe in thinking about the "gut level"!

I also have a food that kicks my butt around the anniversary of my mother's last "successful" attempt. Not cereal, but a special veggie soup with chewie dumplings. I crave it with a passion then, but can't bring myself to make it in case, I think, the reality does not match the memory.

Hmm. Maybe having the reality not match the memory is a way to honor your relation to her and to loss, you know?

And you are not alone in feeling this thing, this holiday oddness, about the tastes of the food and how the the date(s) the food is linked to simply take on an odd tenor that is totally opposite of what is "expected". A lot of people have these holiday food and memory hot-links that are not so jolly-making as one might wish.

Not that that makes any of it taste any better.

Worse, in fact, or even tasteless. And I think you're right that there's a lot more people around with less-than-jolly-making feelings about this holiday oddness.

Well, it's come to this:  FiberOne cereal every single day for breakfast. 

But how fun to be eating it while reading such a thoughtful and personal piece!

Thanks. Why FiberOne?

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Thanks. Why FiberOne?

A half cup serving of Fiber One is 60 kcals and 14 grams of fiber.

A half cup serving of All Brain is 80 kcals and 10 grams of fiber.

And I actually like Fiber One. Not as much as I like Cap'n Crunch with Crunchberries, but enough.

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Thanks for the FiberOne tip, therese. I'll be checking that out next trip to the store. Of course, I'll be interested to see if the FiberOne mascot is as good as that leapin' All-Bran being.

And thank, Miriam. That means a lot.

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Thanks for the FiberOne tip, therese. I'll be checking that out next trip to the store. Of course, I'll be interested to see if the FiberOne mascot is as good as that leapin' All-Bran being.

No mascot that I recall, and now that I've gone to look carefully at the All-Bran guy I'm even happier that I've chosen Fiber One, as I'm already in a sufficient foul mood in the mornings without having to look at a mascot.

Unless it's the Quisp guy. I really wouldn't mind some quality time with the Quisp guy.

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Of course there's also the recent U.S. success of Dannon's Activia yogurt, with "Bifidus Regularis" to help "reduce long intestinal transit time."

Over $100 million in sales in its first year of introduction! That says something about the new health concerns of the baby boom generation.

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Of course there's also the recent U.S. success of Dannon's Activia yogurt, with "Bifidus Regularis" to help "reduce long intestinal transit time."

Over $100 million in sales in its first year of introduction! That says something about the new health concerns of the baby boom generation.

I think maybe it says more about a lack of health concerns. :hmmm:

The "problem" being addressed is usually easily avoided by eating a proper diet and exercising regularly.

SB (pun intended) :rolleyes:

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All that, and you never managed to find Kellogg's All-Bran...WITH EXTRA FIBER? This one has 13 g of fiber per serving. One bowl is half your daily fiber requirements. Add a tbsp of psyllium (ours has the incredibly awful name: Colon Cleanse) and you are well on your way to certifiable health nut. Actually the Kellogg's All-Bran Buds aren't bad, but they have too much sugar. So we do the extra fiber, with the psyllium, and a few ground almonds for flavor.

You get used to it.

I can't believe our parents let us eat that garbage. I can't believe parents today - who know or should know far more than our parents knew - let their kids eat that garbage. They freak out over Alar, trans-fat, and bisphenol, but they feed their kids poison for breakfast every day.

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I can't believe our parents let us eat that garbage. I can't believe parents today - who know or should know far more than our parents knew - let their kids eat that garbage. They freak out over Alar, trans-fat, and bisphenol, but they feed their kids poison for breakfast every day.

I'm glad my parents let me eat that cereal. It helped me develop a very strong and pleasurable relationship to food, probably even moreso than far less frequent lobster boils and annual field strawberry shortcakes did.

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Chris, thanks so much, I really enjoyed this piece.

In fact, I always enjoy your writing for the Daily Gullet.

I always find your meditations moving and funny in a very personal way.

Plus, you encouraged me to finally start adding a heaping tablespoon of the ground flax seeds I purchased a while ago to my daily porridge.

Woo! More dietary fiber!


Edited by eje (log)

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Thanks so much for the musings, Chris.

I hadn't realized what a part my choice of cereal currently was sort of predicated by my youth.

One of my grandmother's gave us free reign in the cereal aisle. The other one was "mean." We had to eat a bowl of Uncle Sam cereal every morning -- it has flax seeds -- eaten out of Fiesta ware bowls with sterling silver spoons. We couldn't play board games, because there were pieces that might get on the floor. Instead, we ate our cereal, and then learned to play bridge and casino.

But, I'm oddly comforted by this cereal these days, and my memories of this lady are more tinged with memories that while there was no finger painting in her house, she took my sister and I out to nice restaurants, for adult meals -- no kid's menu need apply. Gifts were sophisticated clothing that we got to pick out at fancy stores. And, when it was time to move out of her house, she entrusted me with her mother's recipe box.

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My earliest memories of cereal (being born in 1959) was the 1 big block of plain shredded wheat (not those little sugary squares). But I loved it! Or maybe I just loved eating breakfast with my dad and the spoonfuls of sugar he added to the bowl.

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Mmmm, Uncle Sam cereal is the best. My grandma and grandpa turned me on to it years ago, because they ate it every morning. They lived into their 90s, and the rest of their diet was heavy on meat, potatos and butter. I swear they owed their good health and longevity to Uncle Sam Cereal. So now I eat it twice a week. Time will tell...

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I wrote this poem awhile back on eGullet, when we were discussing cereals...

I have been forbidden my favorite sugar rush by my daughter, who can not fathom why I would profess love for both Grape Nuts AND Cap'n Crunch..

Ode to the Cap'n

Cap'n,

O my Cap'n!

Why can you not be

Full of fiber

So as to sustain my being,

My sweet Cap'n! O my Cap'n!

4 grams is the minimum allowed

And your sweet nature

Would serve to dispense

Such measure

In pleasure

Each day.

;0(

How you've teased me with your empty sugar loving

Cap'n Crunch.

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To Chris from another Chris:

Thank you for sharing this story. I was also born in this era, and I'm also a survivor of a loved ones suicide, a story I rarely, if ever, share,but your candor has moved me so. I still, almost forty years later,remember my first bite of Life cereal and being astonished at how good it was.

There is such a strong connection in all of us between are present needs for comfort, and the foods of our childhood.

again, thank you.

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Thanks folks.

Plus, you encouraged me to finally start adding a heaping tablespoon of the ground flax seeds I purchased a while ago to my daily porridge.

Woo!  More dietary fiber!

Flax seed? Eewwww.... :wink:

One of my grandmother's gave us free reign in the cereal aisle.  The other one was "mean."  We had to eat a bowl of Uncle Sam cereal every morning -- it has flax seeds -- eaten out of Fiesta ware bowls with sterling silver spoons. 

I read this and thought, "How horrible to have your relation to Fiestaware ruined!"

My earliest memories of cereal (being born in 1959) was the 1 big block of plain shredded wheat (not those little sugary squares).  But I loved it!  Or maybe I just loved eating breakfast with my dad and the spoonfuls of sugar he added to the bowl.

Or, perhaps, both!

Thank you for sharing this story. I was also born in this era, and I'm also a survivor of a loved ones suicide, a story I rarely, if ever, share,but your candor has moved me so. I still, almost forty years later,remember my first bite of Life cereal and being astonished at how good it was.

I think that there's a metaphor in there, somewhere....

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Life is full of interesting little synchronicities, probably to remind us how interconnected it all is.

I don't usually read this page, but I switched browsers, and I don't have Pastry bookmarked and here I am.

I'm also your age, Chris, and I lost my brother to suicide about the same time, and one of my memories that links me dearly to him is the breakfast cereal ritual you describe. The glory of the cereal aisle, the colorful boxes promising fun, the splendid toys inside the boxes. My mom wouldn't buy the seriously sweet cereal, but she didn't torture us, either, so mostly we had Life and Honeycomb and AlphaBits. But every once in a while she'd let us have Captain Crunch or Sugar Crisp or whatever we wanted. Once in a blue moon I buy a box of sweet cereal and relive the pleasure.

After my brother's suicide, I experienced insomnia for the first time in my life. One night I was absolutely on fire uncomfortable in my skin, and I turned on the television and there was Julia Child, the old original Julia Child, cooking. I don't remember what she was cooking, but it made me feel peaceful. So I began to reconnect with my childhood love of baking, and got into food culture and went down to Washington to see Julia's kitchen and started a cookbook collection and so on. At this point, complete immersion in the pleasure of food and cooking is something that sustains me on a daily basis and quite likely will for the rest of my life.

Thank you for the story, for the image of the Count Chocula milk infusion, and for the connection.

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