May 31, 2001

Killer cereals: The geek guide to presweetened morning cereals

Author: JT Smith

- By Joab Jackson -

Cyberpunk -

It's no accident that when post-cyberpunk sci-fi author Neal Stephenson
went around the country last year doing a book tour for his now classic tome
Cryptonomicon, the passage
he often recited at readings was the multipage treatise on the best way to
eat Cap'n Crunch.Stephenson was doing more than just dispensing etiquette -- he was
offering up to us geeks in the audience some shared experience. We all
knew, even if we probably hadn't thought about it too much, why the alt.cereal FAQ calls cereal the "Gravel of
the Gods." Stephenson reminded us that nothing delivers bursts of instant
energy with such caloric efficiency better than sweetened cereal. Such gravel
provides a quick jack for the hot-running, glucose-sucking brains of
cerebral types everywhere. Just add milk.

Like any piece of pop culture, breakfast cereals have always written
their own aesthetic narrative -- from Sugar Pops' pre-Warholian clean,
bold overtones to the seemingly never-diminishing cult allure of Quisp. And while I don't claim a formal
critical perspective on the field -- I like what I like -- I'd argue
that, as with any other pop-cult consumable, qualitative distinctions can be
made. So, with apologies to Brunching Shuttlecocks, the Web godhead of letter-grade ratings, we
present the Cereal Consumer Guide:

Cap'n Crunch (Quaker Oats): Simply put, Cap'n Crunch is the Rolling Stones
of sweetened cereals, the standard against which all others must be
judged. The breakfast-cereal-connoisseur site Empty Bowl proclaims it the "champion of the nonchocolate cereals." In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson spends paragraphs lovingly doting over the physics of its pillowlike kernels. Simultaneously overpowering and sublime, Cap'n Crunch achieves a finely tuned complexity of texture with only a
minimalistic treatment of its crisped-corn flour. (Empty Bowl nailed it
precisely when it noted that the elusive taste the good Cap'n slyly
hints at is none other than vanilla.) Under milk, it degrades gracefully. And if you can't
wait that long, and the roof of your mouth is rubbed raw from the chewing of
these crystallizations, well, that's the price you pay for tasting
perfection. A+

Cookie Crisp (General Mills): Gotta give C-Crisp props for
being the first to come out of the cupboard. Once upon a time, cereals
strutted their sweetened natures freely. (Remember Sugar Crisp's chop-licking Sugar Bear?) Around
the early '70s, though, the nutrition Nazis moved in, engendering an ugly
climate in the industry that Bill Crawford, co-author of Cerealizing
America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal
, labels
"sugar de-emphasis." Sucrose-laden cereals were recast as "part of a
nutritious breakfast." Cookie Crisp called BS on that jive. I remember
when CC, with its brazenly undisguised cookie-likeness, first hit the
shelves. There was no more hiding from self-deluded parents that this wake-up
fortification their wee ones craved wasn't of the nutritional sort.
Still, nothing's staler than yesterday's revolutionaries. Not to be a sore
tooth about it, but this cereal just doesn't work. Its chocolate flecks leave
an almost cigarette-ash aftertaste; its corn-meal texture is so grainy
that conspiracists could spot UFO images in it. Worst of all, its been
upstaged by the younger Oreo O's -- their cereal's cookie emulations are far
better executed. D

Count Chocula (General Mills): Like any subgenre, the
hard-core chocolate cereals (Cocoa Pebbles, Cocoa Puffs, Cocoa Krispies) hammer
away at their mission with relentless singularity. And no doubt the
straight-edge types who prefer such uncut flavors probably feel that the leavening of
Count Choc's dark pleasures with fruity marshmallows is a pandering to
commercial interests -- the goth dude sold out. Myself, I dig medley.
That's the trouble with purists: Their tastes are always too narrow. B+

Froot Loops (Kellogg's): Is there any surer sign that a cereal
has reached culinary (and market) bankruptcy then when its creator resorts
to injecting novelty "Cherryberry Swirls" into its otherwise formulaic

Mueslix (Kellogg's): Deride me if you will for not keepin' it
inside the stay-fresh pouch, but how can any self-respecting cereal
critic ignore the disingenuous health-food symbolism littering the Mueslix
box? Are people really fooled by the silhouette of the jogger or the wholesome
raisins, nuts, and other healthy bits flying about? Maybe the kind who
believe that this faux-Grape Nuts is good for you simply because whole
barley is subbed for corn meal, because the brown sugar smothers the
regular sugar, because the whole-oat shavings obscure the high-fructose corn
syrup. Indeed, the very nutritional sophistication this chow supposedly endows
on the saps who purchase it is betrayed by the fact that it carries a
higher percentage of fat than most of its hallucinogenic-cartoon,
mascot-sporting brethren. For gullible granola-crunching, Fresh Fields-shopping 120 IQs only. F

Reese's Puffs (General Mills) Literalists beware: These
pellets no more resemble Reese's Peanut Butter Cups than Lucky Charms resemble
Celtic talismans. But are abstract signifiers of trademarked candies a crime?
Perhaps not. These puffs certainly slide down the gullet agreeably
enough. The trouble starts when determined formalists claim to tell the
difference between the blackish "chocolate" balls and the brownish "peanut butter"
ones. I say they're sensing ghosts in the whitewash of milk. Though
pleasant, such illusion is a pale replacement for honest-to-goodness
distinction. B-


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