Friday, September 05, 2008


At work the break area is stocked with small boxes and tiny tubs of breakfast cereal.

All types of breakfast cereal: vitamin-enriched flakes; extruded puffs; faux granola. Cereal with dried berries. Cereal with little marshmallows. Cereal with nuts and raisins. Stacks and stacks of cereal containers. A cereal-lover's paradise.

During summer, the pickings are slim: the interns forage and eat all of the good stuff. They're young and are voracious eaters. Perhaps some of them are still growing; they're that young. I go to the cereal cabinet, and all that's left is a stray package or two of the gross stuff. Lucky Charms or Golden Grahams.


But even those will be hoovered up before the Cereal Guy restocks the shelves.

As the interns return in great droves to their academic institutions, the place grows quiet. We miss their enthusiasm and energy. They're smart and they know it; any place would be lucky to have them. And so they migrate back to school to spread a little luck around.

Secretly, we're all glad that the cereal cabinet won't go empty so quickly now. That there'll be something there when those of us who work late succumb to the dinner-time hunger pangs.

Today Renato and I were contemplating stacks and stacks of the small containers.

"I like Special K," he told me, canvassing the frontmost stacks in the deep cabinet.

"There's some Product 19," I said. "Is that like Special K?"

"No. Not really. It's not like it at all. I wonder why they call it that?"

"Maybe it's the 19th product that they developed at the cereal research lab," I said.

"Maybe it has 19 nutritious ingredients." Renato turned the box sideways so he could read the list.

"I doubt it. I don't know that they would want to draw your attention to the ingredients."

"It has 12 vitamins and minerals," he said. He put the box back on the shelf and pulled down another one.

"Cocoa Puffs," he said.

"Ooooh! I like those!"

"Here." Renato handed me the package.

"I'm not really hungry. Maybe I'll just stash it in my office."

"What's this?" He examined a small box of Kellogg's Granola.

"It's really dense. If you eat that, you'll know you've had cereal." It's not like I'm an authority on all these types of cereal, but I've checked out the granola. It tastes like overcooked oatmeal cookies, and I've been willing to eat that in a pinch. I wouldn't touch the Frooty Loops or the Cinnamon Toast Crunchy Bits even if I were very very hungry. Ditto the Smacky Sugar Shapes.

They make my teeth hurt.

I put the container in my office, along with one of the cartons of Cheerios. I like those too and had to climb up on a chair to find them among the stacks at the back of the cereal cabinet.

I hope it doesn't look greedy to passers-by that I have a growing pile of boxes of my favorite cereals on the corner of my desk. I decide to conceal them behind the useless phone, the one that runs Windows and won't let me login properly. There! I hope I remember that they're there before they get all soggy and disgusting.

The thing is, I'm a cerealtarian.

I used to cook every once in a while, to make Thai curries or lentil soup. I'd even go to some trouble and chop stuff up, slivering jicama and carrot matchsticks for some homestyle Chinese dish. Or I'd make a big salad with thinly sliced oranges and roast chicken on top.

That was before I discovered just how adequate cereal was for dinner, particularly if you layer it into a parfait. A layer of Shredded Wheat, crushed into strands. A layer of Wheat Chex. A layer of Cheerios.

Cheerios are tricky because they float. If you put too much milk in the bowl, the buoyant Cheerios float over the rim and roll away. Messy.

"What do you want to have for dinner?" I ask Mark.

"Cereal," he answers as if it were a novel idea, as if we haven't had cereal for dinner in months. Or as if we'd had anything other than cereal in months.

"Cereal?" I say. "Sound fine to me. Let's have cereal."

We each grab a bowl from the cupboard.

"Are you sure you don't mind?" I ask. Of course, I have no intention of cooking anything, but the question is part of the ritual.

"No. In fact, I was just thinking how good some cereal would taste." Mark says.

So we have become cerealtarians.

It gets embarrassing when I go to Safeway after midnight and buy 11 assorted types of cereal in the large boxes. What's worse is that although we do have preferences, I tilt toward the varieties that have a Club Card discount. $3 off on the Almond Morning with Cranberries (from which I'll harvest all the cranberries and almond slivers before Mark can have at the cloying flakes); $2.51 savings on the off-brand Organic Oat Bran Flakes sweetened with recycled Skittles. $1.63 x 2 boxes = $2.26 aggregate discount on Safeway Wheat-n-Cardboard Rectangles.

By the time I'm done, I've saved more than most people even spend on breakfast cereal. I'm pleased too, not just embarrassed.

And the differently-abled/developmentally-challenged guy who does the bagging late at night is pleased as well: it's fun to wedge the rectangular boxes into the recycle/reuse green grocery bags that I've carefully remembered to lug with me to the store. He's a nice-looking boy if you don’t look too close and notice that there's something goofy in his facial expression or listen too long and notice the tell-tale lilt of his voice.

"You don't put the watermelon on top of the bread," he tells the checker.

She sighs. "I know that," she tells him. You can tell that she usually has to work with him and that she's mostly a good sport about it. Sometimes though you can see that she's tired of humoring him, tired of working nights, and tired of pulling box after box of discounted cereal over the scanner. Cereal. More cereal. 50 or so cans of Fancy Feast. A gallon of milk. A watermelon. A loaf of bread. A large jar of peanut butter.

Beep. Scan. Beep. Scan. No beep. Rescan. No beep. Rescan. Beep. Scan. Beep.

"You don't put the watermelon on top of the bread," the bag-boy repeats, in a firm sing-song, as he puts the watermelon on top of the box of Cheerios. The Cheerios will be oaty-dust by the time I get them home.

He turns to me and says, "I can eat as many Red Vines as I want. Y'know why?"

I really hadn't wanted to have a conversation with this guy. I try to avoid it, but he's always on bagging detail on the late shift. It's likely he can't be trusted to drive the forklift and restock the shelves. So he's bagging. A specialist. He tries to put the milk on top of the cans of cat food in one of my green shopping bags, but the bag flops closed.

"I can eat as many Red Vines as I want. You wanna know why?" He is unperturbed by the recalcitrant grocery bag and not to be deterred by my initial non-response.

"Aren't they bad for your teeth?" I finally say.


The checker rolls her eyes. She's put up with about as much as she can; she's not a young woman and I can tell she's got some sort of sad story of her own that she's not going to be telling me. A grandchild she's been coerced into raising. A meth-head son that she's constantly bailing out of jail. And god knows, it's expensive to live in San Francisco if just for the meds.

The man behind me in line who doesn't seem to have any groceries in hand decides to leave. Perhaps he was going to try to hold up the store, but there's a limit to what he can take. Differently-abled baggers with dentures are apparently over that limit. He squeezes between me and the neighboring checkstand and walks out into the swirling fog. According to one of the guys who's normally on restocking detail at this time of night, the Safeway has been held up twice this week already. But incompetently. He tells me not to even joke about it; there are sensitivities.

The developmentally challenged bagger is probably better security for Safeway than the security guy who's loitering by the entrance, bored and tired of being on his feet. I wouldn't want to try to hold up the bag-boy: he's just the kind of energetic guy who'd take a flying leap at a robber and sink his store-bought choppers into the poor guy's upper arm—and take him down, gun and all.

The woman next in line after him is out of luck; she'd been counting on us to spend more time chit-chatting and up-holding. She's been shopping one item at a time and dropping them off in one of those small baskets that she's set on the conveyor belt to secure her place in line while she scampers all over the store, picking up this and that. Now she's midway up the potato-chip aisle way on the other side of the store, and it's her basket's turn to check out and pay up.

"Is this anyone's?" The checker picks up the basket. It has accumulated quite an assortment of things by now: a vacuum-packed bag of Millstone coffee, ground, breakfast blend. One of those bricks of Marie Callender frozen meat lasagna. A six pack of Bud Lime. A Colgate toothbrush. Radishes. Two 16 ounce cans of Rosarita Refried Beans. A block of preternaturally orange cheddar cheese. A 32 ounce bottle of Mr. & Mrs. T Bloody Mary Mix.

A rainbow of products from all over the store.

"Yours?" The checker asks the man who is next in line after the absent shopper.

"Not mine," he says firmly.

"Why don't you put these things back," she tells the bag-boy, temporarily pleased that so many things have come together and worked out well on her behalf for a change.

I have signed my credit card slip and am ready to escape.

She glances at the slip. "Need any help out tonight, Mrs. Glenn?" Mrs. Glenn, the astronaut's wife. Oh! I forgot the Tang! And what about the Space Food Sticks?

I refrain from saying any of these clever things out loud. "Nope. Don't need any help tonight. Thanks!" I muscle the cart, which is bound and determined to go in tight circles of its own making, into something of a straight line and out the automatic door.

Mark is asleep when I get home. Who can blame him? It's almost one AM.

He gets up to help me put away the groceries.

"Is there anything left down in the car?" he asks.

"Nope. This is it."

"You did good," he says, and lines up 11 new boxes of cereal on top of the refrigerator, next to the 4 that are still there from last time. It's a good thing that we have a wide refrigerator. A good thing. It's a lot of cereal. And a lot of cat food. It's a good thing too that Lumpy doesn't like cereal and we don't like cat food.

I feel secure. There is nothing that makes a cerealtarian more secure than a line-up of fresh unopened boxes, ready to squelch stomach rumblings and vague longings. It's at least two weeks' worth of food, maybe three.

But the trouble with being a cerealtarian is you can't really bring a box or two with you to dinner parties where the host tells you, "Bring something! A salad. A dessert. Wine. You know."

No, I don't know. I have a feeling the host would be dissatisfied with my chosen contribution.

How about Special K with Red Berries? That's good and the red berries make it a little more special. Hey, it's Special K to start with, right? Special. Renato assures me that it's good. And if I bring an unopened box, I won't have eaten all the red berries beforehand.

I don't do it on purpose. Eat the red berries, I mean. They settle on the top of the cereal, not the bottom.

Once when we were visiting Nephew Dave and Loan Anh, I poured myself a regular bowl of Special K with Red Berries, and tucked right into it. It was good! Lots of red berries! Lots and lots!

It turns out that I had eaten all the red berries in the box. No wonder the bowl of cereal was so good.

"Hey!" Nephew Dave looked at his unadorned Special K. "Who ate all the red berries?"

Nephew Dave was committed to the berryless cereal, because he is a member of the milk-first school of cereal consumption: he pours himself a bowl of milk, then adds cereal to the milk until he's got the right consistency.

I didn't say anything. No point in it now.

But if I brought Special K with Red Berries to a dinner party, I'd be sure to bring an unopened box so all the Red Berries would be intact. And whole milk—I'd bring whole milk, not 2% or skim or Cremora or (god forbid) Silk Soy Milk. Surely there must be other cerealtarians among the foodies with their heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozerella or the sophisticates with their French Bordelaise and pâté with toast points. Or the decadents with their Valrhona chocolate and triple-cream Brie.

But really, it all comes back to ingredients. Ingredients. Ingredients. Ingredients. And Cocoa Puffs are:
Whole grain corn
corn syrup
modified corn starch
cocoa processed with alkali
canola and/or rice bran oil
color added
tricalcium phosphate
corn starch
natural and artificial flavor
trisodium phosphate
wheat flour
vitamin E and BHT added to preserve freshness.

And that's before we even get to the vitamins and minerals that General Mills uses to fortify the stuff: What's not to like? I mean, I see all of these restaurant reviews that absolutely fawn over chefs who dabble in molecular gastronomy, chefs who foam carrots and puree green apples with celery root. Surely some extensive food chemistry has taken place to form this cereal into spherical extrusions.

Just look at those ingredients. We could call it corn four ways (which I am distressed to learn is an actual dish among a segment of food-eaters). There's whole grain corn, corn syrup, modified corn starch, and unmodified corn starch. Shoot. Duck Three Ways (Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Crispy Duck Breast and Confit Crêpe with Huckleberry Maple Syrup) would make the grade.

Or was that Duck and Cover?

And what about the tricalcium phosphate AND trisodium phosphate? Not only do they aid in the flow through extruder; they also ensure that there's enough calcium and phosphorus in the product. Calcium's healthy, isn't it? Aren't we all supposed to be trying our best to get these core nutrients without doing anything flaky like eating match heads or serving a Deviled Eggs and Tums amuse bouche?

Yet I can't picture going to a dinner party and bringing my box of Shredded Wheat (even if it's real Nabisco Shredded Wheat, and not Mom's Best Frumpy Ersatz Wheat Pillows or something like that).

Sometimes our non-cerealtarian friends go out with us without really understanding the depth of our commitment. We shuffle into Delfina or Limon and do our best to find something to order off the menu. We poke at the house-cured anchovies and fennel seed flatbread. We feign enthusiasm. We take our spoons and dip into the buttermilk panna cotta and creme fraiche gelato.

"It's pretty rich," Mark says.

"The blackberries are really good," I say, thinking all the while of the dried Red Berries that are in so many kinds of cereal these days.

After our dinner companions take off and we hike up the hill, our bellies full and wallets empty, Mark says, "I feel nauseous. I wish I had cereal for dinner."

"Me too," I say. "Me too."

And later, after the food has worn off to a great extent, we each pour ourselves a small bowl of cereal, topped with Clover-Stornetta 2% Milk (with Clo the Cow on the side of the carton).

"That's really good, isn't it?" I say, crunching avidly on a big biscuit.

"Yeah," Mark says. "Much better than dinner."

Face it: we're Cerealtarians. What can you do?