Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Cereal: Something to Jew on

An anonymous commenter (oh anonymous commenters, how I crave your typing touch! I wonder who you are, I have my guesses of course, but the mystery somehow sustains me, you make me feel worthwhile and for that I love you) asks: “What is your favorite cereal?”

Obviously, there is no simple answer. I am, after all, in the business of telling you more than you wanted to know. And since I enjoy food over perhaps all else in this world ( Preparing it, eating it, hearing about it, talking about it, worrying about it and of course, writing about it) I see no reason not to indulge a loyal reader...

In the earliest part of my youth, breakfast cereal was a modest affair. There are pictures of me as a toddler seated in my under-shirted dad’s lap at the table, two spoons (one big, one small) hacking, geologist style, at a stubborn, sugar topped barge of shredded wheat bobbing in a whole-milk lagoon. In those days I recall eating a lot of Raisin Bran, Cornflakes, Cheerios, and this delicious (probably now extinct) thing called Quaker Crunchy Oat Bran, a cereal that consisted of puffy brown squares of lightly sweated meal which disintegrated rapidly in milk, quickly gaining a peculiar but not unpleasant fuzzy or slimy sort of quality.

My father, already in the onset of digestive woes, was and remains very adamant about eating lots of fruit. On those occasions that he did the grocery shopping back in the days of yore, I feel as though he always came home with just two things: Entenmanns donuts and bags and bags of fruit. At breakfast time he’d hover over us with a peach and a knife like a nutritional proctor of sorts saying as he sliced, “You gotta get some of this baby in there! Whoo this is a sweet one!”

It worked. We really liked our simple cereals adorned with whatever seasonal offering of “nature’s candy” the self proclaimed “Captain Fruit” had managed to procure, and a judiciously administered dusting of sugar (Captain Fruit after all, was still a product of the 1950’s “sugar pops” and “sugar flakes” era of breakfast cereal). Occasionally, at Grandma’s house, we’d eat cream of wheat or oatmeal (initially, I preferred the first and then somewhere along the line graduated to the latter).

All was edenic until Sugar cereals arrived on the scene. Just like my poor mother swore we’d only watch PBS and then found herself powerless against our desperate and unrelenting lobbying for He-Man after school, she lost again at the great Sugar Cereal Battle of 1985, whisps of hoary sweetness and steamy breath of hollering hyper kids rising through the early morning air.

Enter the Apple Jacks, the Cap’n Crunch, the Honey Comb, The Golden Grahams, The Fruit loops, Golden Smacks, The Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles, Cocoa Puffs, and about a zillion more I’m forgetting now.

Do you notice any Major Hitters missing from this roster? Pause for a moment and think.

They are the cereals we NEVER, EVER ate: Lucky Charms, anything from Count Chocula’s cavity crypt, in short any sugar cereal that contained what in those days’ we imagined to be the holy grail or white truffles of breakfast cereal ingredients: marshmallows.

Sad but true. Such sodden bliss never passed through my tiny lips.
Well, I grew up in a family that adheres strictly to the laws of Kosher. Any and all mainstream arshmallow products were strictly forbidden as they contain the infamous, pig-derived Jewish kids’ party killer: gelatin. Every now and then my mother would turn up a bag of marshmallows made from plant-derived gelatin, at some over-priced kosher foods specialty store so I knew what marshmallows tasted like. They were a treat of such rarified proportions that we ate them with an almost religious ecstasy. They were divine and mysterious. And to think! Some kids could just tip a box of cereal, and like nuggets of gold, they’d come tumbling out into the bowl shaped like all sorts of magical talismans to boot! Horseshoes, blob-like ghouls, an infinity of referent cycles I longed to break between my teeth.

The unfairness of it was truly maddening for my siblings and me. Our marshmallow dreams were colored through a prism of the Lucky Charms rainbow. When the commercials came on T.V. we sat transfixed, licking our lips, desperately wondering what they tasted like. When we went grocery shopping with our mom we’d linger forlornly besides the tantalizing rows of our forbidden treasure, occasionally being so bold as to toss a box into the cart, or clutch one fiercely in the throes of a tempter tantrum. Again and again, the boxes (now creased in the corners) were plucked from the cart, wrenched from our vice-like grips.

And so it was.

Back on non-marshmallow front, the breakfast cereal wars continued with causalities (and by that I mean cavities) climbing into the dozens. Eventually, somewhere around 1988, my mom put her foot down and in one tactical move managed to elegantly lay down the law while simultaneously reinforcing our reluctant religious faith. A new rule mandated that Sugar Cereals were to be consumed only on Saturday mornings as a special Sabbath treat. Amid much grumbling we accepted the compromise; terrorized by my mother’s tales of friends she knew whose (likely mal-adjusted) children’s only sugar intake came in the form of dried carob.

Saturday mornings thus became a sugar cereal gorging Olympics. We’d eat bowl after bowl, experimenting with combinations of different cereals and residual discolored milk leftovers. We’d fight over prizes and stuff ourselves sick until my mother chased us upstairs to get dressed for synagogue.

And so it went.

When I was 17, my boyfriend was shocked and horrified to discover I’d never eaten lucky charms and promptly bought me a box. I sat in the kitchen at his mother’s house while he ceremoniously poured me a bowl like a doting butler awaiting approval on a fois de gras.

You know what folks? It tasted like ass.

“This Marshmallow isn’t chewy!” I cried in heart-rending dismay. Rather, it was chalky, dissolving in my mouth with a sickening crunch.
“Duh,” he said, “They freeze dry them or something.”

All those years I’d imagined something gloriously squishy, the divine stuff of gooey s'mores. It was (quite literally) a crushing let down.

A few years back, my mother, weary and now working full time, relented on some sugar cereal rules and the family has reverted to a free for all, though the no marshmallow rule of course persists. When I go home I’m wowed by the selection of cereals but rarely eat them. The thing is that somewhere in my early adulthood, I lost interest in cereal. (“Fodder for fools” my South American Friend Jorge calls it, preferring real breakfasts of zatar seasoned eggs and delicious fried plantains).

These days I eat cereal, sugary or not, more like a dessert or a special treat. When I do, however, these are some for which I maintain a particular fondness: Cheerios, Wild Berry Kix, Life (and Cinnamon Life), Cap’n crunch, and these new fangled organic ones full of dried strawberries and mango.

I try to make Captain Fruit proud you know.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Message From Water (continued)

A Message in Two Parts

Part One: The Crying Log
Part Two: Tashlich


Seemingly every little thing scrapes up my insides. It’s like rug burn. The world slides into me so fast it leaves raw, tender spots on the inside of my throat, my lungs my stomach. My blood pauses during circulation to paint ancient pictures on the underside of my skin. Hunters with spears, chaffs of wheat, celestial bodies and weather effects.

Sitting in a crappy tacqueria killing time as the sun might be beginning to set but no bother because it was grey all day. It does its sexy thing behind a drab silk screen…

In my reading on constructivist education theory I come across a passage from a letter by a third grade student to a teacher: “You are the North Star of the class. You don’t’ tell us where to go but you guide us there.” The burn comes inching up around my eyeballs.

Just then, a big fat black man in a trench coat and a haggard blond lady amble in together. Loudly, raspily, she proclaims this place “authentic” and orders a steak burrito. They sit behind me and he tells her “You look good. Casually dressed, but good.” She says she’s tired that’s all. She talks like a drug addict who has seen very rough things. He tells her about his sleep schedule, how he’s got it all worked out: He sleeps from 5-12, then gets up and goes about his day, “power naps” around 5:30 so he can spend some time with the kids and then off to work.

Her order is called.

As they walk out she says, “Feel how heavy it is.” Palming the white paper bag like a dumbbell trophy. He pauses at the door and kisses her on the forehead.
Who are they?
Why are they?

Again, tears, fresh.


The Jewish custom of Tashlich is one of the most beautiful we have. The name, etymological cousin of “to send” and “messenger,” means a casting off. The ritual is traditionally performed on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that occurs in the fall. On the surface the holiday is naturally a time of celebration, well wishing and festive meal gorging. On another level, it portentously begins a period of solemn self-reflection. The period between the start of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called the Ten Days of Atonement in which we are obliged to examine the events of the last year, take stock of our mistakes and make the necessary apologies and resolutions. This humbling clearing of the air reaches a powerful denouement on Yom Kippur as Jews make a final bid for absolution before God.

Tashlich is a way of marking this effort to start anew. One simply walks to a live body of water (river, lake, stream or sea), with a pocketful of bread crumbs and in a cleansing gesture, the crumbs, symbols of mistakes and transgressions, are cast into the water. There is no specific liturgy for the ritual and while certain psalms are often recited there is much room for personal improvisation.

It’s been many years since I’ve done Tashlich but somehow, this autumn, I became fixated on it. This can be attributed to several things (most notably the rising pitch of my miserable Jewish identity crisis), but more romantically, it’s a lake thing. This, after all, is Chicago.

The lake shore in Chicago is one of the few things about the city that reliably, consistently makes sense in the way that only things which fill your body and being with such awe and beauty so complete it’s nearly stomach turning do. At night the lake is big and silent and black and goes on forever. You can move through city on your bike as if compelled by a secret mission, magnetically drawn due east until you end up on a concrete pier feeling yourself disappear before the enormity of the night, the twinkling grandiosity of a steel and concrete Valhalla, the sky, the vague knowledge that somewhere over there lies Michigan, and somewhere elsewhere lies Singapore, San Francisco or Seville.

I had dreams of becoming a runner of sorts, taking people, friends, and lovers, to the lake to do Tashlich. This I wanted. It didn’t happen. I was too busy. Too lazy. I dream more easily than I accomplish and time got away. By the day before Yom Kippur eve I still hadn’t done Tashlich. So I revised my vision and came up with a more modest version, to involve stopping at the Damen bridge just south of Diversy on my way to the bar. Ripe with curiosity and general autumnal contemplativeness, I had no trouble roping Donna and Antonia into accompanying me.

I toasted a heel of bread and wrapped it in some foil. We donned our layers and clanked out on our bikes, rapidly falling into formation, a giddy phalanx headed the wrong way down Barry. A prickly drizzle fell from a murky night sky. On the bridge we propped our bikes up in a line and leaning out on the slippery orange railing, gazed quietly at the sludgy, opaque river running a dozen meters beneath us.

The bread divided, I explained the ritual of Tashlich and read in Hebrew and English a traditional Tashlich passage, Micah 7:18. (I had attempted my own translation in an effort to neutralize the male-centered language but it came out too clunky to be powerful so -with reservations-I reverted to the standard)

Who is a God like you? Who passes over the sins of his inheritors?
God does not retain anger forever because he delights in merciful kindness

And then all but the softness of the rain, the occasional slick sputter of passing cars, and the crumbling of bread, silence. I broke off big pieces for the most obvious things that came immediately to mind. Terrible things I’m not sure I want to talk about here. I allowed myself to remember the events. Savor them with distance, tasting like marbles, bland, hard, terrorizing, I rolled them around a predictable course of shutes and slides in my mind. Ashamed. Sorry. Hopefully somewhat wiser now, even if only to a barely perceptible degree. I watched the pieces of toast fall into the river and move along. Maybe fish or birds would eat them. I found that thought oddly comforting, as though at least then, on top of everything else I wouldn’t be guilty of wasting food as well.

Antonia asked me for more bread saying with a solemn, rueful smile that she had “a lot to get rid of.” We all did. We all do. I knew that it was not some vague omniscient God whom I was petitioning; rather it was my own forgiveness I sought. In the last year I had done more damage to myself than to anyone else. At least I sincerely hope that’s the case because I barely managed to survive some of my assaults, anything of that magnitude inflicted on someone else would be unconscionable, requiring substantial stock holdings in wheat.

With this in mind I recited to A&D a line from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. “God is merciful to all his creatures on the day of Judgment.” “So too,” I ventured cautiously, “We should be kind and merciful to ourselves.”

It’s a very hard thing to do.

We stood in silence for a few more moments, taking in the surprising awe of the hideous scenery. Antonia and Donna kept seeing fish splashing in the filthy water. I kept missing them, tuning in just in time to see the ripples I swore had to have been caused by falling rocks since the idea of life in that water seemed unfathomable. Life is, above all else, persistent.

Finally, with deep sighs,, in the hazy glow of street lamps and the big Vienna beef factory sign, we remounted our bikes and pressing on again south, headed to the bar, ready, despite the purity of my intentions, to start all over again.