Cereal: Something to Jew on
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.