Serving Suggested: Thoughts on Dessert Cereal

In her book on writing, Anne Lamott recommends for all rookie writers to begin with childhood, specifically what school lunch was like. Write everything you can remember, she says, about school lunch. What you ate, what others ate, what you and they traded for. Everything. I suppose, as she recommends, I could begin here, and perhaps I will write someday about lunch, but I’d like to begin earlier in the day with the most important meal: breakfast.

I am technically the youngest of four, since my twin sister is eight minutes older than I am, and as a child I would always strive for a space of my own, somewhere I could get alone. I realized at an early age, and it’s something I still practice today in order to secure some daily solitude, that I must awaken before everyone else. My older daughter, it would seem, possesses a similar desire—or is it a need?—for she always wakes up before her younger sister, and on Saturdays, my lone day to “sleep in,” which usually means until 7 a.m, when I make way down the stairs toward the kitchen, and more specifically to our Keurig coffee brewer, where a Caribou K-cup beckons me, I discover her, T.V. remote in hand, lying on the couch half-asleep and contented, if only slightly perturbed by my intrusion into the space I typically occupy at that hour on weekdays. As a child, I wouldn’t be lying on a couch but seated in the kitchen instead, and I wouldn’t be holding a remote, since we didn’t own one yet, but a spoon, ready to plunge into the milk, made colorful by either Lucky Charms or Trix.

We seldom buy “dessert cereal,” and when we do, it is reserved only for the weekends. On Saturday mornings, the girls will voraciously consume whatever sugary cereal they picked out, which they have to take turns doing, except I substitute their choices with the cheaper store brand. Kroger normally offers a version of just about any Saturday-morning-cartoon-sponsored brand. Later in the morning, I’ll often prepare a brunch of eggs, bacon, and pancakes to assure some kind of nutrition for our growing children. Our weekday selections resemble less a family pantry and more my grandma’s. The first time I ever had raisin bran, in fact, was at Papa and Grandma’s. I least looked forward to their breakfast choices when we occasionally spent the night at their house. Where Cocoa Puffs and Sugar Smacks tended to hold onto their buoyancy at least through half of The Littles or The Get-Along Gang, raisin bran became instantly soggy, even before the first “The More You Know” PSA.

Micah’s favorite breakfast food is oatmeal, partly, I think, because he likes helping me cook it. He’ll retrieve his stepstool where it normally sits at the sink in the laundry room, and he’ll reach for the top shelf of a pantry cupboard I purchased from the Sauder outlet in Archbold and built myself. (Two and a half years later, it’s still standing strong, anchored to the wall behind it, in case Micah takes after Jacque and her monkey genes, inherited from their mother.) We keep the rolled oats in a small plastic container with an easy-to-pour spout so he can measure out the oats. The secret to my oatmeal is simply to measure the water and the oats. I won’t measure out water for boxed macaroni and cheese, but I’m sure to do so with oatmeal. Just as the girls did, Micah likes to eat the raw oats, so I leave a little in the measuring cup for him. Between nibbles, he’ll get out the butter dish from the door of the refrigerator and the spoons from the drawer near the kitchen sink. We’ll discuss our fruit options that morning. Usually, he suggests raisins, which he loves, always wanting them for an after-naptime snack. The other day we had dried cherries, which may be a bit too tart for his taste. Since the girls don’t really like bananas, there is normally a ripening one in the fruit basket in our dining room. Add in some chopped walnuts, and it’s like eating banana nut bread, especially with the generous scoop of brown sugar I stir in. Occasionally, we’ll have berries. Any kind suits Micah, but blueberries are easier than strawberries or raspberries since they don’t need to be cut to prevent Micah’s choking, though unless they’re organic they may need a Fit bath.

During baseball season, I’ll often have the previous night’s D-Backs game playing on my iPad, and even older games if I’ve fallen behind on watching. Very often, we’ll watch a couple innings at the dining table. It’s sort of our time together, a wonderful way to start the day, though mine will have started hours earlier, when in the summer I sit on the porch and awake the dawn with Scripture. I’ll push it into the fall, when morning temperatures will eventually compel me inside.

Sometimes Micah wants cereal, perhaps his rumbling tummy impatient for the process of cooking oatmeal. He’ll often point to another clear container in which we’ve poured Fruity Pebbles, or whatever Kroger calls theirs. The fruity cereal belongs, as the older children are aware, to Daddy, reserved for late-night snacks, such as when I return home from a late rehearsal. “No, no, Micah, we can’t have that,” I tell him gently, though in my mind I’m scolding him, “Those are Daddy’s. Lay off!”

This morning after his request for the colorful rice cereal is denied yet again, he points to an unfamiliar box, a new cereal Cindy recently bought called Corn Bran Crunch. The corn cereals are my least favorite. I prefer cereals made with wheat, like Kashi’s Autumn Wheat, or just about any kind of granola. Target’s Market Pantry chocolate hazelnut granola, my favorite and another of Daddy’s reserve, seems almost sinful so early in the day. Last night’s starter, Ian Kennedy, barely gets through his warm-up tosses before I’ve filled with Corn Bran Crunch a little plastic bowl, one we bought from Ikea and the ideal size for a preschooler. After filling a four-ounce plastic cup with whole milk, I splash some in Micah’s bowl and then reach for the one-percent for my cereal, which could be Grape Nuts—I can’t believe I eat those—or possibly even raisin bran, since I’ve taken a liking to it.

When we sit at the table, as Kennedy makes quick work of the Giants leadoff hitter, Micah peers at his bowl and looks bewildered. “What’s wrong,” I ask him, and he replies, “Where duh berries?” To which I ask, “What berries?” “Duh berries.” We sit and stare at one another for a moment, Mark Grace commenting on the key to that night’s game. Then, “Oh, you mean the berries on the box.” “Yeah, where duh berries?”

So my child’s first disappointment, in what will come to characterize his life as a consumer, due to the marketing ploys of General Mills and Kellogg’s and, in this case, Quaker, which makes Corn Bran Crunch. Two little words he can’t yet read and which I can barely see offer a disclaimer for their false image of a bowl dotted with raspberries: SERVING SUGGESTED.

Do you remember your first realization that berries were not included in the cereal? As kids we were convinced, weren’t we? I was certain there would be strawberries in my Cheerios and blueberries in my shredded wheat. Who had taken them? It couldn’t have been Brian or Steve or Becky, because I always awoke before them and got to the box of cereal the morning after Mom brought it home from Olsen’s Market on 16th Street. I saw it as we emptied the bags in the kitchen, if even briefly. As the youngest, my job was to fold the paper bags and stow them in the cabinet on which the microwave sat. Those paper bags were always so itchy, which is why I never liked them as book covers in junior high. Itchy, though not as itchy as the time Dad appointed me, the smallest and the skinniest and the least likely to get stuck, as the one to climb through the air ducts when he was installing new fiberglass insulation.

Oh, where were the blueberries? And for that matter, we never ate our cereal with orange juice and toast at the table, as they always pictured in the commercials. No, the only thing on the table besides a bowl and a spoon was the box, since I liked to read the back and do the activities. One time, those activities paid me a handsome dividend. I really don’t remember the contest, but I imagine it involved collecting a few UPC codes, which didn’t take long for as much cereal as we four kids ate, and sending them in. Was it some kind of a mystery to solve? Whatever the case, I received in the mail months later, probably long after I’d forgotten about it, a cashier’s check for $100 with my name on the payee line. Was it real? Was it actual money? My mother used checks all the time, very often writing them for less than a dollar at Circle K, a convenience store situated on every street corner in Yuma. I don’t write checks myself today, preferring instead to use my debit card but never for anything less than a dollar. Coffee is typically my smallest purchase.

I hadn’t been convinced the money was real, since I’d learned not to put much faith in cereal companies that promise but don’t deliver berries. And when they did—when they did include berries in the cereal, they were all dry and shriveled up, as if someone had stuck them in a dehydrator, like the one Dad saw featured on a late-night infomercial and purchased to make beef jerky, except he had to make it outside because Mom didn’t want the house smelling like dried meat. The consistency of those dehydrated berries was similar to the various marshmallow charms, squeaky when you bit into them, like eating Styrofoam packing peanuts but sweeter. Unlike those checks I receive these days in the mail from car dealerships or appliance stores, the money I received was real, and Mom was excited for me. What a wonderful opportunity a windfall presented for giving gifts.

“What’re you talking about, Mom?”

“Yes, you should buy something for your sister and your brothers.”

“No, I don’t think that’s what General Mills [or whoever made Cap’n Crunch] would want me to do.”

“Yes, I think it’s a good idea.”

“Well, I might have to think about it.”

Such was how the conversation might have gone.

I did buy them gifts, despite that none of them had put forth any effort into helping me with the contest—whatever it was. We all went to Best, or was it still called LaBelle’s back then, a since-then bankrupted catalog store, where you didn’t have to wait for your selections to come in the mail. Instead, you picked out what you wanted, noting the item number on the display of the showroom, and it magically appeared on a conveyor belt of sorts. Becky and I chipped in together to buy Mom a crystal vase one year for Mother’s Day, much as we pooled our money to allow Becky to take her to a D-backs game in Phoenix this year, which hardly seemed fair since I live 2,000 miles away and would have to watch the broadcast on my iPad with Micah that Monday morning.

For a Christmas gift, Mom bought me an electronic typewriter at Best. I’m not sure why I wanted one back then, even before I knew how to type, which I would learn and excel at in seventh grade, peaking a decade later around ninety words per minute. Perhaps even as a ten-year-old I had aspirations of becoming a writer. Mom would also buy me, for yet another Christmas gift, my first keyboard, a Yamaha with plenty of bells and whistles for a budding musician. That second gift was what would eventually, in a round-about way, help me pay the bills as a father of two healthy-eating teenagers and a disappointed three-year-old, coming to grips with the reality of a berry-less cereal bowl.

Maybe we should just stick to oatmeal and we’ll mix in our own berries. Or perhaps some yogurt—I especially like the thick and creamy Greek kind. Mmm, Mediterranean food. All this talk of breakfast is making me hungry. Too bad I can’t find a decent Gyro around here.