I have a complicated relationship with breakfast cereal.
In grade school, I would wake up at the sound of the garage door opening as my dad left for work at 6:45 am. I would jump out of bed (yes, I was one of those kids), take a quick shower, get dressed in something that had a high likelihood of being either pink or purple, then run down to the breakfast area to take stock of my options for the morning. Our breakfast nook is at the end of the kitchen, highlighted by four windows which allowed light to stream in from the south and west. It looked out onto our suburban backyard, with its dogwoods, azaleas, and the intermittent tomato. If it was winter, the sun would just be coming up, and either yellow and red maple leaves or drifts of snow would be swirling around and settling on the birdbath or patio chairs. If I was lucky, my dad would still be there, dressed in suit and tie, his aftershave from the crystal blue bottle just faintly notable, his green eyes lighting up as he emptied the peeled, soaked almonds that were a mainstay of breakfast time into my cereal bowl. He would be standing at the sink (always standing, as if there was no other appropriate way to eat breakfast at 7 am before work) with a bowl of cornflakes with just enough milk to cause minimal sogginess. We both ate our cereal in 2.5 minutes. It was an unspoken rule to preserve crunchiness at the expense of taste, and potentially, adequate mastication.
My mom tells me that when I was little, I would wander leisurely through my plate, requiring an hour to put away a piece of broccoli the size of her thumb. I suppose that I have been making up for this maddeningly slow pace of early culinary exploration ever since then.
The cereal choices – Honey Nut Cheerios (my favorite), Kix (remember those? this name was apparently hilarious to the entire family and led to many cringe-worthy jokes from grandpa), Crispix, regular Cheerios mixed with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I judged the week based on which one I would be eating for the next 10 days. HNCheerios? It was going to be an excellent week. The Cinnamon Toast Crunch usually finished before the Regular Cheerios, in which case breakfast for the remainder of the days would be bland and less-than-inspiring, and cause some degree of grumpiness for several hours afterwards.
As I grew older, I realized that I could have cereal at other times as a snack, too! Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have the same time constraints as in the morning, and I would be ravenous in the free moments between homework, editing the newspaper, being a band geek, and running to ballet. Given my early years of training, given 15 minutes and an episode of the The Cosby Show I could eat half a box of cereal on one occasion alone. Each time, newly astonished at my emerging identity as a bottomless pit, I would roll away from the table and attempt to do homework. This did not work well. My brain really did not function after such an infusion of carbs and sugar. It was as though I was trying to process the assorted responsibilities of my increasingly busy days by slipping back into the familiar, sweet, and mechanical comforts of those early mornings. It was a 15-minute escape from being a teenager.
In college, I survived on frozen yogurt, bagels, salads, raspberry muffins from the coffee shop and chocolate chip cookies from the bakery. If I ever had a cereal box it would be emptied, easily, in 3 days while I shunned all other food. There was no scheduled breakfast anymore. No ritual. No certainty. College was about trying to find a new path every few months, and this included how I ate. Despite all the changes, however, cereal continued to inhabit the post of a guilty pleasure. I would return to it when things were uncertain, tough…grounding me in something known.
Freed from the expectation of daily breakfast cereal, the contents of my early morning meals ricocheted between acceptable and disastrous: dining hall birthday cake with too-sweet mocha frosting, soymilk, random Indian sweets from home. I remember stepping into the coffee shop, bleary-eyed from midterms and promptly being pointed towards the coffee with the “most caffeine” which would then serve as fuel for the morning. I believe the ultimate nutritional depravity came when I counted breakfast as a multivitamin and flax seed oil pill taken with the last sips of that super-caffeinated coffee right before a physiology final.
As I left college and went to grad schools, began living on my own, I somehow naturally took cereal out of my day, shifted it to oatmeal (of which it is quite difficult to eat too much) or eat it as a dessert. I now rarely have a box in my house. I think it took growing up to realize comfort food is about joy and taste rather than eating to fill a void or recreate easy moments.
When I go back to my childhood home, in that same breakfast nook with the four windows and the soaked almonds, I still find a colorful variety of boxes and sit down to eat a bowl in the morning before tea and conversation begins. These boxes, which have changed with the times to generally include words like “high fiber” or “whole grain” are now served with warm milk and tea and a Centrum silver multivitamin. Still, though, it is the time and circumstance of those moments that holds such great potential. Breakfast will always be entwined with early morning, when the entire possibility of the day still extends before you. I hope that optimism will stay with me, honey nut cheerios or not.