There is a national crisis afoot and it has nothing to do with taxes, trade, or immigration.
Breakfast cereals are going the way of the dinosaur.
I was a kid during the breakfast cereal heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a glorious time to be alive. We might have only had three channels on our television sets, but we had 768 choices on the cereal aisle.
For several decades, cereal took on all comers. Any crazy breakfast concept or combination a food company could dream up went head-up in the battle against cereal and lost. It’s true. A food chemist somewhere in Minnesota invented sweet rolls that could be stored in a can, whopped on the counter, and baked in the oven, and cereal still stayed at the top of the breakfast hierarchy. Then some doofus invented a “pastry” with a quarter teaspoon of jelly in between two crusty pieces of crumbly, dry pie dough, labeled it a “Pop Tart” and told people to cook it in their toaster. Cereal just laughed. As if that weren’t enough, some bozo shrunk cheap waffles, froze them, and told people to take the Pop Tarts out of their toasters and replace them with frozen waffles. Cereal didn’t budge.
Pardon me while I indulge in a get-off-of-my-lawn moment.
Then along came the millennials with their smoothies, yogurt, and cereal bars, and screwed up the natural order in the breakfast world.
Cereal sales in the United States were $14 billion 15 years ago. Now they’ve dropped to $10 billion a year. If I stopped eating cereal that national number would be several percentage points lower.
Again, millennials are screwing this up for the rest of us. In a recent survey I found in the New York Times, 40 percent of the millennials surveyed said cereal is an “inconvenient choice,” calling it “too much trouble.” Say what? How hard is it to make a bowl of cereal? I’ve been doing it on my own since I was three-years old. You take a bowl out of the cabinet, pour cereal into it, pour milk on top of that, and then get a spoon out of the drawer and eat the cereal. That’s it. It doesn’t get much easier.
Though this has obviously become a tough task for some. When asked why they thought cereal was an inconvenience, most respondents complained about having to clean the bowl. Seriously, that was their beef. There’s an easy answer to that— get married. (authors note: the previous sentence is not a misogynistic or chauvinist statement. Not at all. It has nothing to do with my wife but has everything to do with the mysterious dish-washing fairy that lives and hides somewhere in my kitchen). I kid you not, something magical happened when I got married over 25 years ago. Every time I eat a bowl of cereal, I place the empty, dirty bowl in the sink, and MAGICALLY the next day it’s back on the shelf where all of the cereal bowls are kept, and it’s sparkling clean! It’s amazing. I don’t know what magical process happens in my kitchen, but it’s truly a miracle. I tried telling my wife about this remarkable phenomenon that miraculously happens in our kitchen, and she just rolled her eyes.
Over 40 percent of baby boomers (that’s me), and the generation before us, still eat the cereal that they ate as a kid. I can confirm that, as there are a dozen boxes of sugary kid’s cereals in my kitchen cabinet as I type.
So, Kellogg’s, Post, and General Mills have my generation to thank for keeping them afloat. The generation before us might have been the Greatest Generation and saved the world from rampant and unchecked tyranny, but it was my fellow boomers who saved so many other lives, such as Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula, Snap, Crackle, AND Pop! You are welcome, America.
Cap’n Crunch is great. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it in the last 40 years. I still eat Count Chocula when I can find it. That’s me. I grew up in the generation of Quisp and Quake. Those were the days when Corn Pops were called what they are, “Sugar Pops,” and Frosted Flakes were called “Sugar Frosted Flakes.”
Several years ago, David Chang’s pastry chef, Christina Tosi, opened Milk Bar next to Chang’s groundbreaking Momofuku in the East Village and had the brilliant idea to use cereal milk as the main ingredient when making ice cream. This woman needs a statue erected in her honor in the middle of Central Park. Such brilliance should be celebrated, celebrated often, and celebrated in marble and granite. Tosi claims to eat three bowls of cereal for dinner on some nights. That’s my kind of woman. Kyle Medenhall, an executive chef in Boulder, Colorado, says, “Every chef is probably a cereal guy because 90 percent of them go home at two in the morning and eat what’s there because they don’t want to cook anymore.” I second that.
As a kid, the cereal aisle was as appealing as the toy aisle, and that’s probably because cereal used to come with toys inside. In the early 1970s, some cereals came with a 45 RPM record attached to the back cover of the box delivering an amazing morning trifecta of sugar-coated oats, marshmallows, and music.
As a kid, I could spend an hour browsing up and down the cereal aisle. I could still spend hours on the cereal aisle these days if it weren’t shrunk by half thanks to those meddling kids and their protein bars and kale smoothies. Now get off of my lawn and start eating cereal again. All of you!
RSJ’s Top 10 All-Time Cereals
10. Frosted Rice Krispies: How does one make Rice Krispies better? Coat them in sugar. Sold.
9. Fruit Loops: I’ve been eating this cereal, off and on, all of my life. It doesn’t hold up as much as most of my other kid’s cereal favorites and feels like “empty calories” more than the others— not that most of them aren’t, but that has never stopped me, even in adulthood.
8. Kellogg’s Corn Pops: These used to be called “Sugar Pops” because that is what they were, big puffed balls of corn liberally coated with refined sugar. Ah, the good ol’ days.
7. Honey Nut Cheerios: These guys took a cue from the Frosted Rice Krispies team and did what any respectable food chemist this side of Clark Griswold would do, and when one of the suits on the 35th floor told them, “Cheerios are boring, what can we do?” The simple answer was— coat them in modified corn starch and brown sugar syrup. Genius!
6. Smacks: This cereal used to be called Sugar Smacks back when cereal companies weren’t so hung up on truth in advertising.
5. Honey Bunches of Oats with Real Strawberries: This is a grown-up cereal, and I understand I damage my reputation a little bit by including a cereal that every other 56-year old like me might eat, but it’s good.
4. Frosted Flakes: I still eat Frosted Flakes with sliced bananas. It’s a go-to when I am in the need of an on-the-go breakfast or quick snack in Italy, too. They’re called Frosties over there, but it’s the same cereal.
3. Count Chocula: If I would have compiled a top-ten list as a 12-year old, this cereal would have made it to number one with a bullet. It combined everything I was interested in at the time, chocolate, milk, and cartoon monsters.
2. Cap’n Crunch: This is my go-to even today. Seriously, Cap’n Crunch is awesome with sliced bananas on top. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it since the seventh grade (trust me, your taste buds haven’t changed that much). I don’t eat it in the morning but as a late-night snack. Just don’t tell my cardiologist. Any time spent with the Cap’n is time well spent, indeed.
1. Honey Bunches of Oats with Real Peaches: OK, so I put a grown-up cereal at number one, but it’s the best cereal ever invented, and the numbskulls at Post discontinued it for some reason. It was so good that if they ever decided to re-release it on a limited run, I would buy a truckload and figure out how to cryogenically preserve all of the boxes to make it all last several years. Instead, I’m stuck with the aforementioned Honey Bunches of Oats with Real Strawberries.