Editor’s Note: On a peaceful Saturday morning in early September I sat in my backyard, savoring the scene before me: the grass and trees and black-eyed Susans, all feeling different now — as the sunlight and scents took on an autumn mood. It reminded me of a memorable essay from years back, and that got me to conjuring a list of all-time personal favorites published in the magazine over the years. I decided to share them with you, a new one each Saturday morning until the calendar reaches 2024. A surprising bit of random fun is always welcomed onto our pages amid the serious deliberations of important issues. Our winter edition 1988-89 contained Eric Zorn’s celebration of breakfast cereal, which is not only entertaining but also a sly commentary on life in America. —Kerry Temple ’74
To a cereal lover, Bull Durham contains the most graphically disturbing scene in American cinematic history.
It occurs near the end of the film when the male lead, played by Kevin Costner, is enjoying a bowl of Wheaties at the kitchen table of the female lead, played by Susan Sarandon. She flatters him and he is moved by her flattery — so much so, in fact, that he flings his bowl of Wheaties into the sink with roguish abandon. The bowl breaks into pieces, the Wheaties are lost and, in a final horrifying moment, Mr. Costner and Ms. Sarandon knock over a carton of milk in an unwholesome embrace. I screamed and covered my eyes.
I am an adult cereal freak. Not just Wheaties and Corn Flakes, not just O’s or K’s or mysterious yet somehow respectable varieties of bran, but all cereals — Kaboom, Rocky Road, Trix, Cabbage Patch Kids, GI Joe, Mr T., Nerds, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Circus Fun . . . and, God help me, Fruity Pebbles.
I have eaten them all. No cereal is so disgusting or juvenile that I will not buy it at least once. In our cupboard even now is a bright blue box of New Smurf Magic Berries with Marshmallow Stars — a pedestrian variation on a tired cereal theme, if you want my critical judgment, but it does come with a free checkerboard on the back and cut-out checkers on the side panel.
Our guests are now accustomed to seeing boxes of Cookie Crisp, Ice Cream Cones and S’Mores Crunch in full view, mixed in with the usual assortment of breakfast foods, even though my wife and I have no children. We make no attempt to hide these sugar-caked breakfast entertainments, unlike that cowardly woman in the television commercial for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes who guiltily conceals her passion from neighbors and acquaintances. She and I could not be friends. But then she is probably just a cereal dilettante, one who is content with only one bowl of one cereal only once a day. She is a cereal tourist, not a fellow traveller. She no doubt fails to appreciate cereal as a phenomenon, a purpose and a guiding light.
I eat cereal all the time. I eat it for lunch and as a late afternoon snack. I eat cereals that turn the milk red. I eat cereals shaped like cartoon action figures. For dessert I eat cereals filled with floating pieces of clotted marshmallow. I eat cereals that happen to aid my digestion. I eat cereals that look like gravel. I eat cereals that look like dog kibbles, by the handful, before retiring. I am haunted by Count Chocula and bearded in the wee hours by an unrelenting Cap’n Crunch.
To paraphrase Walt Whitman, I celebrate cereal and sing cereal. If I had been Kevin Costner, I would have pushed Susan Sarandon into the sink and told her to shut her yap until I’d finished my Wheaties. Never, in any case, would I have wasted even a flake.
And I suspect I am not alone in my single-minded snarfing. This country spends $5.5 billion on breakfast cereal each year, with the average person responsible for 9.6 pounds (a measly 9.6 pounds, I say), but sales of the top 100 brands are now growing by 10 percent a year, and as the annual poundage increases so will membership in the brotherhood of cereal fanatics.
We know each other by sight in the grocery store, prowling the cereal aisle like wine buffs at the vintner’s, reading labels and holding up sections for closer inspection. We thrall to the embarrassment of riches that is Pro Grain, Nut & Honey, Kix, Almond Delight, Lucky Charms, Fruitful-Raisin Nut- and Cracklin’ Oat Bran, Apple Squares, Apple Jacks, Froot Loops, Fruit and Fibre, Horizon Trail Mix, the Chex family, Post Toasties, Quisp, Quake and Cocoa Puffs.
Experts say the cereal boom is part of the health craze — low cholesterol, high fiber, vitamins you never even knew you were missing — but for a lot of us I’m sure it’s more a part of the laziness craze. Cereal is the easiest and fastest thing to fix in the universe, even when you make something of a ceremonial production of it, as I do.
Each morning I take down seven or eight different cereals from the cupboard and set the boxes out like library books on the dining room table. My wife and I behold a smorgasbord of whatever cereals we happen to have had coupons for last time we went shopping (we are cereally promiscuous, deliberately cultivating no loyalties) and any new or unusual cereals on the market (we will try anything once, although, as with the ghastly Dinersaurs recently, we do not always the finish the box).
We sprinkle our morning cereal into soup tureens, as regular bowls are not large enough. First a layer of one cereal, then a layer of another and then still another. On the top we sprinkle either Grape Nuts or Nutri-Grain Nuggets, a pair of identical granular cereals each of which claims superiority to the other.
Many of the cereals in our patent blends (like Just Right or the one labelled Almost Raisin, Brown Rice and Corn Whole Grains Cereal) are already blends themselves, leaving us with a filling festival of tasty grains and raisins and nuts with, according to the precise nutrition information on the boxes, all the protein, iron, Vitamins A, C, D, E and B’s 6 and 12, potassium, thiamin, folic and pantothenic acids, riboflavin, zinc, copper and phosphorus a person would ever need to survive.
I haven’t felt low on phosphorus in years. But — and here is the point — one can never, ever be too sure.
Kevin Costner may get high marks from women, but I’ll wager his phosphorus count is low. And if someday he winds up in the hospital suffering from a phosphorous deficiency, he’ll get no sympathy from me. He made that disgusting mess, and now he’s got to lie in it.
When this essay was published in the winter 1988-89 issue, Eric Zorn was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.