There must be a rule of thumb in pop-culture archaeology that states that the allure of any topic is inversely related to its assigned importance in the affairs of humanity. The more trivial the subject, the dearer it is to most of its partisans, and the more worthy of scholarship. The smallest things in life often mean the most to people.
Now, food is admittedly a very vital subject that commands much attention, affection, and interest, sometimes even driving public policy. But among foodstuffs, cold breakfast cereal probably falls pretty near the bottom of the gastronomic and intellectual scale, occupying only a tiny slice of the average person’s daily agenda. Sure, it’s a $6 billion-per-year market. But that’s just a fraction of what American consumers spend on, say, their pets ($50 billion, by latest estimates).
So a book devoted to a history of breakfast cereals might seem a dubious proposition, trivial and inconsequential. But such is not the case, as proven by The Great American Cereal Book. This enthralling, albeit lightweight history of grainy, sugary breakfast table fare will instantly hook anyone who picks up its visual splendors. The reader will find himself spending long, pleasant stretches marveling at cereals familiar and comforting, oddball and frightening. (Kellogg’s “Crunchy Loggs, a wood-themed cereal.”) Brightly illustrated, full of quirky history and intelligent exegesis (consider the feature on “Breakfast Cereals and Comedy,” for example), it will provoke wonder, nostalgia, and maybe even hunger pangs. Moreover, it provides a valuable window into the advertising and consumerist forces that continue to besiege our daily existence.
Gitlin and Ellis wisely and simply divide their study into six chronological periods. They begin by examining the primitive, antediluvian cereals of the 1800s, such as Grape-Nuts and Shredded Wheat. Each cereal entry features information on manufacturer, date of origin, date of cessation, ingredients, advertising, and anecdotal trivia. Subsequent chapters examine 1900-15; 1916-48; 1949-70; 1971-80; and 1981-2010. Each era is marked by its own themes, the middle of the twentieth century, for instance, is dubbed with good reason “Presweetened Baby Boomers.”
The authors exhibit vast and amiable knowledge of their topic, unearthing forgotten cereal mascots, inventors, and ad campaigns. They are able to summon up short and vivid descriptions of each product that convey its essential nature. Franken Berry is “Strawberry-flavored oats shaped like an X with a circle around it, and strawberry marbits.” “Marbits,” by the way, is the industry shorthand for “marshmallow bits,” which were revolutionary when introduced via Lucky Charms, though we take them for granted nowadays.
Year by year this fascinating catalog of the myriad ways in which a few simple grains, flavors, and accessory ingredients were infinitely permuted rolls on, providing readers with pleasant reminders of the juvenile treats that shaped their morning rituals, and the concomitant cultural landmarks (Howdy Doody, Superman, Mr. T). The only slight gaps in the coverage discernible to me were failure to mention the iconic hacker Captain Crunch and his cereal-derived phone-freaking whistle; and no examination of any possible synergy between the fresh fruit industry and the cereal makers. Their advertising often seems to go hand-in-hand, suggesting some covert form of coordination.
But the book also documents the marketplace laboratory in which corporations endlessly tinkered with newer and more addictive ways to seduce and dominate their customers. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this is the delinking of cereal branding from the actual composition of the product. Everyone can guess what “Corn Flakes” tastes like, even if you’ve never had them. But what, pray tell, does “High School Musical” or “Spider-Man” cereal possibly taste like? In this late era, we have reached the ultimate deracination between product image and what actually sits on our spoon.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.