When people complain, “Oh, man, I didn’t get to eat sweet cereals growing up,” they say it like they were especially deprived. But few of us got to, at least not the people I knew. Of my friends, only [name redacted] was allowed sweet cereals. He also had Cinemax, no bedtime, and was also allowed to swear in front of his parents. Sleepovers at [name redacted]’s were terrifying.
I’m not bitching, but simply stating a fact of my childhood: My brothers and I grew up on whatever dusty off-brand breakfast bunkum my parents found on sale at Safeway. That meant lots of Post Toasties, Kix, and a perpetually stale Grape-Nut knockoff called Nutty Nuggets.
Though we ate these cereals, we did not respect them. Or each other. Whoever got to the box of Raisin Bran first picked out all the raisins for themselves and further showed their disdain by annihilating the plastic bag just to let that shit go stale for the next person. Every now and then a box of Honeycomb or Golden Grahams would show up in the pantry and the breakfast-table blood sport that followed was Game of Thrones-level savagery. A Red Wedding with spoons.
The rare instances we got the really sweet stuff, it was usually something sketchy. There was a sinister product called Buc Wheats, which, if I remember correctly, was made up of discarded pencil shavings coated with an artificial maple glaze that made all the flakes clump together in the box and turned the milk into a dismal sludgefeast. For 30 glorious and inexplicable seconds, Buc Wheats tasted good. Then they morphed into dense, spiteful stomach bricks that caused great distress on the bus to school and triggered multiple unexpected gastrointestinal outcomes.
It was a vicious circle: The more my parents denied me the “good” stuff, the more obsessed with it I became. In my mind, the holy trinity of forbidden fruit flavoring was Trix, Lucky Charms, and Froot Loops. (I had never actually seen Cap’n Crunch in the wild outside of the supermarket, so it existed in its own mysterious universe.) The tantalizing cartoon characters on these illicit boxes—the smug toucans and hopped-up rabbits—were beyond my grasp, elusive gods at whose sugary altars I would never worship. When the sideway caps-donning hipster Honey Smacks frog asked if I could dig ’em, I didn’t even know what he meant. Dig what, you cool-ass frog?! I could not dig ’em. I never had the chance to dig ’em.
Once a year, we roadtripped to my step-great-grandmother’s house in St. Joseph, Missouri. I didn’t much care for my step-great-grandmother’s house, which smelled like mothballs and bunions and was filled of photos of creepy old relatives whose dead eyes followed you everywhere. But I got to eat a bowl of Froot Loops every morning, which tasted every bit as amazing as I imagined. Trips to St. Joseph were awesome.
The day my older brother got a car, he did something bold and amazing. He drove to the grocery store and bought his own box of Fruity Pebbles, which he kept hidden as contraband in his own room. I never had the imagination or bravado to do the same. I didn’t even have the guts to ask him to share. When I went off to college, I watched in awe—and undeniable jealousy—as my fellow freshmen took advantage of the dorm’s liberal food plan and turned the school year into one long, debauched Apple Jacks Bacchanal, downing cereal three meals a day. Again, I was too intimidated to follow suit.
In grad school, the bottom fell out. My roommate, a chef and bouncer with a massive appetite and an encyclopedic knowledge of cold breakfast foods, gave me my first hit of Lucky Charms, and I promptly turned into Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting. We poured whole boxes of “the charm” into giant mixing bowls at 2 a.m. and watched mixed martial arts tournaments on ESPN2 while consuming the daily carbohydrate allowance of a rhinoceros. More than once, we passed out on the couch together, spoons in hand, like Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons in a lost-weekend haze. But our vices were Red 40 and modified food starch.
My habit lasted more than two decades. I had kids of my own. Staring into the mirror I saw Corn Pop dust ringing my lips—Who had I become? Bloated with my recommended daily intake of riboflavin and good intentions, I enrolled in one of those fitness boot camps, and the first thing I was encouraged to do was cut cereal from my diet and replace it with yogurt. Yogurt! The worst food on earth. Lumpy streptococcus bacteria for realtors and joggers! But I went cold-turkey and ate my yogurt every morning with my pathetic little doll-spoon, and yes, I lost weight.
I have been cereal-free for four years now, and I’m still terrified of falling off the wagon and splashing down in a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Hell, I’d give up my 401K for handful of Chex Mix. In the meantime, I enjoy the dull satisfaction of relative health, and hate-fill my children’s bowls with Crispix and Life and whatever else was on sale at the Shop ‘N Save.
“How come you never get us any good cereals?” one of them whines every morning. When it comes to breakfast, the circle is vicious, and it looks an awful lot like a Froot Loop.