There was a certain ritual when it came to cereal in the mornings. I would wake up craving it, from the moment my eyes opened. It didn’t matter if it was 4 am or 7, I would stumble out of bed, use the restroom, wash my hands, and immediately head to the kitchen. And there the ritual could begin: open the cupboard, remove the bowl, hear it clink against the other dishes as I pulled it free, set it on the counter. We kept the cereal boxes in rows on the top of the fridge. Select the box, open the flap, un-crinkle the plastic bag inside the box from where it had been crumpled down tightly, to keep the cereal crisp. Then tip the box and hear the little morsels of sugar-y grain tinkle-tinkle-tinkle inside the bowl. Set the box on the table, open the drawer, grab the spoon and clink it against the glass bowl. Open the fridge, retrieve the milk, unscrew the cap, and then pour the white gold directly into the bowl until the cereal could just float on the top. We generally chose Skim milk; it was more water-y than the others, but it had fewer Calories than whole milk. Then lift the spoon, mix the cereal into the milk until it was evenly distributed, the perfect mix of wet and dry, still crunchy but cold from the milk. Scoot the chair out from the table and take that first delicious crunchy bite while slurping the milk off the spoon at the same time. There would always be reading material as well; some people preferred newspapers or even the back of the cereal box itself, but me, I liked comic books. I’d bite, read, clink the spoon against the side of the bowl as I scooped another bite, turn the page to find the X-Men battling Apocalypse or Magneto or Stryfe, take another bite. Crunch, slurp, flip, bam-pow-splat, clink, crunch, slurp, flip, clink, crunch.
I downed the cereal quickly, every time. There was no savoring it. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t eat it fast enough. I’d barely be swallowing one bite as I shoved another quickly into my mouth, and in 2 or maybe 3 minutes, it would be gone, leaving nothing but the milk in the bowl. The milk would be flavored by now, it would take on the color of the cereal, tan or chocolatey or yellow, and there was sugar and high fructose corn syrup making it sweet. And I could have just slurped the milk down, but it seemed such a waste to let perfectly good milk go unappreciated like that. So instead, I’d reach for the cereal box and pour just a bit in, repeating the ritual, except with maybe half the amount of the first time, just enough to float in the milk. Clink, crunch, sip, flip, clink, crunch, sip, and soon that would be gone, and there’d be even less milk. One last small handful of cereal to fill that up, a few more bites, then finally I could slurp the remnants. The bowl would go to the dish washer, the milk back in the fridge, the plastic crinkled down over whatever cereal remained, the box closed and put on top of the fridge again. And I’d be left with that Styrofoam feeling on my tongue and a heaviness in my gut.
The cereal was the perfect beginning to the day, no matter what I chose. Cereal, and milk. I never read the ingredients back then, never took the time, but the top ones would have always been ‘enriched wheat flour’, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and maybe marshmallows, depending on the brand. It might mention oats, or rice, or corn, or bran, or whatever grain had been modified to create the crunchy shapes, but almost always it was enriched wheat flour, and everyone knew that wheat was good for you. Wheat and milk. And sure, sugar, but we were Americans, and everyone was entitled to a little sugar in their diet. We earned it. Throw in some preservatives, some food dyes, and package for selling.
All of the cereals were just variations on each other, squares or circles, flakes or crisp little morsels, and some cut into the shape of some cartoon character or emblem. Some were dyed different colors, usually brown or tan but sometimes pink or green or yellow, or made to resemble something delicious. Cocoa or peanut butter or “natural fruit flavor”, with marshmallows or sprinkles or cinnamon. Some were even known for the sound effects they made, or for the color they would turn the milk.
Corn Pops, Apple Jacks, Lucky Charms, Honey Smacks, Honey Nut Cheerios, Trix, Waffle Crisp, Cookie Crunch, Fruity or Cocoa Pebbles, Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Puffs, Fruit Loops, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Golden Grahams. They filled up long shelves down an entire aisle of the grocery store, each box lovingly placed under the lights so the kids could salivate over it as their moms wheeled by them with shopping carts.
“Mom, please! Can I have that!” And if there was cereal and milk, then Mom didn’t have to cook. Win-win for everyone.
No matter what the boxes advertised, things like ‘made with real fruit juice!’ or ‘now packed with vitamin C!’ or ‘part of every kid’s balanced breakfast!’, I knew that these sugary concoctions weren’t good for me. They tasted too good to be good for me. It was like having crunchy Halloween candy for breakfast. God, one cereal brand was even made by Reece’s. But I didn’t care. I let myself belief they were good and good for me, and I grew up loving them. I idolized them in a sense, all through childhood, through my teenage years, and well into adulthood. They were iconic. They made me think of home, of breakfast time around the table with family, of indulgence. Of ritual. Didn’t matter that I was different than other kids, or that dad cried all the time, or that the step-dad used his fists too much; cereal was constant. It got me through three hour blocks of church, gave me energy to get ready on school mornings, and kept me company through Saturday morning cartoons. Delicious, crunchy, wonderful cereal and milk. Clink, crunch, slurp, every morning.
Getting name brand cereals was a treat. A rather rare occasion, but a treat. It was much more likely that we would get the cheaper off-brand product, made by Western Family or Malt-O-Meal instead of General Mills. We couldn’t afford Frosted Mini-Wheats, but we could certainly afford a plastic bag full of Mini-Spooners, and a bag of Cini-Mini Crunch was much cheaper than the Cinnamon Toast variety. There were rows full of off-brand options. Fruity Dino-Bites instead of Fruity Pebbles, Honey Nut Scooters instead of Cheerios, and Golden Puffs instead of Honey Smacks, Chocolate Draculas instead of Count Chocula. All of them were carefully marketed to resemble their brand-name counterparts, with designs, shapes, flavors, colors, and packaging. Pranks instead of Trix, and Honey Buzzers instead of Honey Comb, on and on and on.
These cereals, the brand-name ones, were branded into my soul. They had mascots, each and every one of them. Most Saturday morning cartoon characters from the Ninja Turtles to the Power Rangers to the Flintstones, had their own cereal brands and boxes. But each of the name-brand cereals had their own branded cartoon right on the box. The characters were colorful, with huge features, and easy to identify. Just looking at them, you could hear their voice, their slogan.
Toucan Sam (Follow Your Nose!), the Trix Rabbit (Silly rabbit, Trix are for Kids!), Lucky the Leprauchaun (They’re Always After Me Lucky Charms!), Tony the Tiger (They’re Grrrreat!), Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (I’m Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!), that weird little werewolf hedgehog on the Honeycombs box whose name was Crazy Craving (Honeycomb, honeycomb, me want honeycomb!). They had adventures, sometimes even enemies, heck, sometimes kids were their enemies because kids wanted their cereal! Saturday morning cartoons were punctuated by commercials starring these characters, the same ones that smiled on the front of every box. Some commercials ended with a dramatic “to be continued.” Would the Trix Rabbit be fooled by the kids trying to steal his cereal? Would Cap’n Crunch escape from the Soggies? What magical shape would become the next Lucky Charms marshmallow? They already had green clovers and yellow stars, why not a purple horseshoe! The commercials were exciting, and they carried over onto the cereal boxes. I could still doodle these characters on paper, I can still hear their voices in my head. It made things even more appealing. The off-brand cereals had mascots as well, but they were nothing more than images on the box. I can’t name a single off-brand character or what cereal they went with. I have vague images a koala, a kangaroo, a monkey, a dinosaur. No, without the multi-million dollar marketing campaigns of General Mills, Malt-O-Meal never stood a chance. Malt-O-Meal could only try to look like the stuff I really wanted, the stuff I saw on TV.
And there were prizes in the boxes! Generally, they were of a lower quality than something you might find in a McDonalds’ Happy Meal, but it was exciting nonetheless. The second we’d get home from the grocery store, I’d rip open the box top, tear open the plastic, and throw my likely unwashed hand down into the cereal, rifling through it until I found the small plastic package with the toy inside. A plastic ring with a spider on it; a small coloring book, the entire thing only four pages and smaller than my hand; a low quality hunk of plastic designed to look like some cartoon character; a treasure map that led to nowhere. Sometimes the prizes got very specific: an “Urkel for President” button, color-changing Flintstones dinosaurs, a Sugar Bear yo-yo. Generally, whatever the prize was, I’d play with it for approximately one minute, then it would end up in some corner of my room never to be touched again.
In childhood, when I first started snarfing down bowl-fulls of cereal, I learned the nutritional habits that would set me up for my teenage and adult life. Don’t read the labels, don’t worry about nutrition for the most part, no moderation needed. Eat as much as you can for as cheaply as possible. Why buy the 4 -dollar loaf of bread when there was a loaf for 60 cents right there? Cheap soups, meats, crackers, cake mixes. When it went on sale, buy as much as possible, and then eat as much as possible at home. There were seven kids in my family, and many meals were simply ‘fend for yourself’. The exception was always Sunday dinner, when Mom made pot roast and bowls full of mashed potatoes, and an entire pan of Little Debbie cake, and plates full of rolls. Then, there was always plenty of food. I’d already had two or three bowls of cereal for breakfast, but there was nothing wrong with having seconds, or thirds, or maybe even fourths. I’d eat so much on Sunday afternoons that I’d wind up on the couch in a food coma, my body devoting all of its possible resources to digesting the mass of chewed-up food in my gut. My stomach would poke out, I’d undo my pants and lay there, reading a book or watching cartoons, perhaps having a snooze. I’d lay there until I could move, but I’d feel bloated and exhausted for hours afterwards, all the way to bedtime. And then the next morning, I’d get up and start with cereal all over again.
Things changed a lot when my parents divorced. I was the sixth of seven children, and the two oldest kids were already out of the house. Then, just after my fourth grade year, we packed up the U-Haul and Mom moved us from southwestern Missouri to southeastern Idaho. Dad stayed behind with my brother and one of my sisters, who wanted to finish school there, and Mom took the three youngest kids to start a brand new life. We moved into a rental home and Mom started a new job, working more than full-time as a second grade teacher. To make things worse, she got a concussion in those first few months. I was 11, my younger sister Sheri was 7, and eating became more out of cans and boxes than ever before. Lunch was often at school, where we were given whatever equivalent of healthy lunch was being served at the time, but at home, it was much easier to simply eat cereal. Every morning, every evening, and sometimes for all three meals on the weekends. This diet, supplemented by toast and peanut butter, cans of Spaghettios, and Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, became the staples of my diet.
I’m sure I learned the food pyramid somewhere along the way. There was very likely a discussion about vitamins and nutrition in my sixth-grade health class. But it wasn’t until I was 15 that I started processing that food was impacting my day to day health. I began to realize that cereal simultaneously made me feel stuffed full, but also left me ravenously hungry within a few hours. I was starting to notice boys more now, and the guys I noticed usually had big calves and strong chests and muscular arms. I wasn’t exercising, ever. I avoided it. And I was eating constantly. I was average in height and weight, but I had no muscle definition. I began to realize that with what I was eating, I couldn’t poop for a few days at a time, or that some of them, Honey Smacks and Golden Puffs in particular, made my urine smell just like the cereal. I had headaches and back aches more often, and less energy, and my sleep suffered. I was less confident, more prone to depression. I needed to change things.
And so, I shifted my eating, not much, but some. I would only have one bowl of breakfast cereal, and I would try to make a healthier choice. I could purchase Cinnamon Life, or Wheat Chex, or regular Cheerios, or Honey Bunches of Oats, or whatever their Malt-O-Meal counterpart brands were. These were healthier decisions, and I could still keep my ritual. The cartoons and prizes were gone, but I still got the crinkle of the plastic, the plink-plink of the bowl, the pouring of the milk. And now I could add two or three spoon-fuls of sugar and mix it in before I ate it. A much healthier choice. And if I kept it to one bowl, and added two slices of toast with butter, and a big glass of orange juice, and maybe a multi-vitamin. And no more cereal for lunch and dinner. Instead, I could have spaghetti and lasagna, and garlic bread, or chili with crackers, or sandwiches with bowls full of chips and a glass or two of Kool-Aid. And Sundays, for big family meals, I could still eat as much as I wanted. After all, I was the only boy in the house now. Now maybe I’d start to feel better, have more energy, and start to look good. I wouldn’t even have to exercise!
This routine lasted me for years, diversifying my diet and keeping my cereal to just breakfast time. It lasted through my two -year missionary service, when I had to shop and cook for myself exclusively. I came up with about 25 ways to eat Ramen noodles, and went through hundreds of jars full of peanut butter, and I even added some fruits and vegetables along the way for good measure, but every morning, cereal. It lasted me through two years of college, when I discovered a deep-and-abiding love for microwave pizzas (only 99 cents for an entire plate-sized pizza!) and microwave burritos, still every morning, cereal and milk. When I first started working out regularly at the gym, I finally grew out of my skinny self and put on some muscle, gaining 20 pounds in one year, but I never changed the way I ate and never got enough protein. And every morning through all of that, breakfast cereal with milk and sugar. My beloved life companion.
And thus it continued, through graduate school, through my several years to be the best Mormon boy possible, through all of my attempts to no longer be gay. And then, finally, I got married. I was maybe 10 pounds overweight then. And when that didn’t fix my homosexuality either, well, the portions got bigger, and so did I. Three or maybe four bowls of cereal at breakfast, or maybe just one bowl if I got one of the big salad bowls to eat out of instead. A family size bag of M-n-Ms per day in my office. A burger and fries for lunch. A liter of Pepsi and a bag of microwave popcorn for an afternoon snack. Huge helpings of whatever dinner my wife made that evening. And, between the ages of 27 and 30, I got up to 255 pounds. And then, between the ages of 30 and 31, I got back down to 175, a total of 80 pounds loss. But that journey, that’s another story completely. But I will say that losing my weight meant starting to pay attention to what I’m eating, to developing an education about myself. It required mindfulness and self-inventory. And ultimately, it led me to coming out of the closet and starting a bold new life.
A big part of my coming out was recognizing that the rules and customs I’d grown up with, the ones that felt good and the ones that didn’t, weren’t all that healthy. Breakfast cereal represented comfort and sustenance for me, excitement even. But ultimately, it was entirely threatening. It comforted me while harming me, it filled me up and left me hungry for more. After my weight loss, I started studying food and nutrition more. I learned how scientists altered the wheat plant so that products could stay longer on the shelves, basically stripping them of all nutritional value. I learned how they make high fructose corn syrup, about the spike in the American obesity epidemic for both children and adults, and the similar spike in diabetes and other related illnesses. I learned that nearly every product sold in grocery stores, even those labelled as health foods, are labeled and advertised in ways that appeal to the market they are directed for, that words like ‘low-fat’ or ‘multi-grain’ or ‘packed with vitamin C’ or ‘organic’ may not mean anything at all. I learned that corporations and big businesses fuel and fund the laws and regulations around advertising and marketing, and how it pervades nearly every aspect of culture.
Take Cap’n Crunch for a moment. It’s a simple product, crunchy corn cereal in little rounded square shapes. It takes amazing with milk. Cap’n Crunch was created by Pamela Low in 1963. She remembered how her grandmother would put butter and brown sugar over rice, and that was the inspiration for the original flavor. Low also helped create several candy bars. Before she came up with the cereal, she had a marketing plan, then she perfected the recipe, feeling it left the consumer with the right amount of, and I quote, “want-more-ishness”. They hired scientists to perfect the recipe, came up with the name, and designed a silly white-haired pirate captain to appear on the box. They gave him a name: Cap’n Crunch, his full name is Horatio Magellan Crunch, by the way, and then a uniform and a backstory, with a full team of animators and storytellers to help them. He lives on Crunch Island, which contains Mt. Crunchmore, a mountain made of cereal. They came up with a slogan, a jingle, pretty colors to put on a cereal box, and then launched it on the public. A few years of success, and they launched a new brand: Cap’n Crunch with Crunch-berries! And then, a few more years, and Peanut-Butter Crunch, with a new mascot, Smedley the elephant! Then in the 1970s, they put out Vanilly Crunch, with the mascot Wilma the White Whale, and the fruit-flavored Punch Crunch, with the sailor Harry the hippopotamus. And then, in 1982, Choco Crunch, with the mascot Chockle the Blob. The following decades have given us dozens more variants: Christmas Crunch, Halloween Crunch, Deep Sea Crunch, Galactic Crunch, Polar Crunch, and Home Run Crunch, as well as the charmingly named “Oops! All Berries”, Mystery Volcano Crunch with Pop-Rocks in the cereal, and Airhead Crunch with sugary Airheads mixed right in!
Cap’n Crunch is owned by the parent company, Quaker Oats, a company around since 1901, and a company which is in turn owned by, surprise surprise, PepsiCo. PepsiCo employs the food scientists who alter the corn and wheat crops, who make the corn syrup, who design the preservatives, and who study the exact amount of crunch per bite that will satisfy their customers. And they do the same for chips and crackers, cheese-foods and yogurts, lunchmeats and carbonated beverages. And if that doesn’t change the way you look at the cereal aisle in the grocery store, well, nothing will.
A few years ago, I went to a family reunion, where hundreds of extended family members had gathered for a big summer celebration. There were tables full of food. Donuts, fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, caramel popcorn, buckets of licorice. I remember walking up and down the rows of food and just witnessing how every food item was saturated in sugar, corn syrup, and enriched wheat flour. And then, in the center of one of the tables, a small bowl of green salad and another of grapes. Every person there had giant platefuls of food, stacked up on top of each other. And I knew they would finish the plates and then go for a pile of dessert off the far table. Nearly everyone there was obese. And this was the culture I’d grown up in, the ones my grandparents had set up with their own children. My grandparents had been raised in the Great Depression years, during a time of great scarcity, when they had to eat when they could, and then as much as they could. And they’d raised their children this way. And somewhere along the way, that had turned into a culture of just, well, indulgence without thinking. And this, my family and every other, this was the public the companies were marketing to.
I could go on and on, but I’ll close with this. I remember being 12 and waking up, immediately looking forward to a bowl of Peanut Butter Crunch. I poured the milk, I wolfed down the cereal, I poured more and ate it too. And I remember realizing that the top of my mouth was raw. It felt like the skin was cracked. It hurt, it was tender, and I could almost taste blood. “Oh my word,” I thought. “I’ve eaten so much Cap’n Crunch, the roof of my mouth is bleeding. I should go look in the mirror and check.” And I did. But first, I had just one more bowl of cereal.