For weeks now, I have been craving Frankenberry. Yes, Frankenberry. The breakfast cereal.
Maybe it’s the crisp air, hinting at the coming Fall weather, which reminds me of the start of school, which makes me think of how I started every single day of my young life: with a medium-sized Corelleware bowl of sugary cereal sluiced with whole milk.
In light of all my recent intestinal struggles, it seems too obvious now, too much of a cosmic joke that I started every day of my life for nearly eighteen years with the very stuff that makes me bloated and miserable now. As happens with dairy and wheat, my tolerance for it deteriorated over time. As a kid, I don’t remember having issues with food. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if I went to work now with a belly full of cow’s milk and wheat flakes.
Anywho. Frankenberry. I’ve been wanting it. So, on Tuesday, I took a little stroll to my local middle-of-the-road supermarket, just to see if it was still even available. Buying a box of sugary kids’ cereal in this city is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, supermarkets around here carry local brands, and only the basics when it comes to processed food. For another, Frankenberry falls into a category that doesn't exactly qualify as "basic"...or "food", for that matter.
Food shopping is no longer the exercise in instant gratification it once was. No, no. Now there are things like price per ounce and high fructose corn syrup to consider. Whereas I once mindlessly flicked boxes of macaroni and cheese and fish-shaped crackers and cans of noodles into my cart, I now pause (in the middle of the aisle, blocking traffic, like a good Seattleite) and turn over boxes to read ingredient lists. I inspect cans of tomato sauce for the type of liner being used. I make sure all the food I buy features a picture of kindly looking woman bent over an oven in an apron with a testimonial about how this or that grew out of her desire to “feed her kids the right stuff”. I buy mostly fresh foods and very little processed food. Now that I am more discerning, or maybe because drinking alcohol out of plastic indicates some kind of “problem” (or else an incurable laziness, neither of which I want to be guilty of) I have trained my eye to look up to the top shelf for everything I buy.
I knew, though, on the way to the grocery store, that I would have to look down there on the bottom shelves for Frankenberry, the Monarch gin of the cereal world. There are only the most subtle of differences between Fruity Pebbles and and Apple Jax, but it’s someone’s job out there to determine which gets to rub elbows with the boxes containing “healthy foods” like raisins and nuts, and which gets to sit next to the boxes containing Red Dye # 40. And I judged Frankenberry to be loaded with Red Dye #40, so I scoured the twelve inches above the kickboards for my fix. If that doesn’t speak volumes about the severity of my cravings at that moment, I don’t know what does.
To my amazement, though, it wasn’t there. In fact, it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves. The store didn’t carry it. I was disappointed. I think. I think I was disappointed, but I was also a little relieved that, in conjunction with inventing shock-absorbing sneakers and bendy toothbrushes, we’d come, as a society, to this place. This place where we had decided that that much sugar and red food coloring for breakfast was just, well, insane.
Relieved of my mission, I stood there in the cereal aisle and marveled at the choices still available to me. The boxes were a little different than I remembered them, but twenty years hadn’t done much to change the overall look of the Trix rabbit or the Lucky Charms leprechaun. I stood there and considered the strange luck I’d had knowing what all the stuff in front of me tasted like. When I was growing up, we ate a LOT of sugary cereals. And over the years we sampled nearly every single one of them, even ones with dubious breakfast connotations like “Ice Cream Cones Cereal” and “Dinersaurs”. Someone in the food lab at Post had figured out that the only difference between my breakfast and a common barnyard animal’s was the application of heated air and the addition of marshmallows and goddamnit if my family didn’t buy it up by the truckload.
Minus the new and “improved” cereals (chocolate Cheerios, for instance), I could almost taste them each just by looking at them. (Wow. What the hell, brain? Thanks for retaining THAT information. I’ll never wonder why I can’t remember where my car keys are again. It’s obvious the “texture of Rice Krispies” is taking up too much room up there). Standing there, I could recall the joy of having the roof of my mouth ripped to pieces by the Fiberglass-like Cap’n Crunch. I knew, as well as the best food scientists, the time in which an Apple Jack would become so waterlogged with milk it would lose its distinct apple-y flavor and become just another flesh colored inner tube of corn. I knew it only took nine or ten soggy Cheerios in the sink trap to fill the entire first floor of our house with the foul smell of fermented oatbran and sour milk. I knew that Fruity Pebbles were an epic failure of colorfastness and floatability. I knew that Lucky Charms were *almost* as good dry as they were with milk. I knew that the greatest disappointment of my seven year old life, Cookie Crisp- a bowl of cookies and milk for breakfast- was not the genius rogue idea it appeared to be. I knew that the makers of Kix were the masters of understatement. If a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch was the Museum Bilbao, then Kix was an Ikea end table: simple, tasteful and perfunctory.
Yes, I knew all this and more. I was raised by a generation perhaps a little too embracing of ready-made foods (and particularly, by a mom, why by child number four, was too exhausted to do much more than huck bowls at us at 7 am and tell us to hurry up and pick out our cereal, for chrissakes).We enjoyed a veritable smorgasbord of puffed corn and oats and wheat for breakfast for many years. It was smart planning on everyone’s part, really. It saved mom from having to cook every school morning, and it gave us all the feeling, even at seven years old, that we had some say in our otherwise highly routinized day. Also, it gave my mother a reliable timetable with which to plan her day: We would all be needing naps at precisely 10 am after our 7 am sugar high.
Despite our having spent our college tuition on Lucky Charms and Trix, there was one cereal that we never did get to try, a cereal I was reminded of as I stood before the pink and green and yellow boxes: Booberry. Booberry was the elusive black sheep in the GM triumvirate (or quadrumvirate, depending on whether or not you consider “Fruity Yummy Mummy” a legitimate contender) of horror film-inspired foods. For the years between 1982 and 1995, I stalked the aisles for Booberry. Alas, test markets must have proven that kids from the Mid-Atlantic States identified more readily with chocolate and strawberry flavored foods than with blueberry flavored ones. As a kid, I speculated that somewhere in California or Wisconsin, in a weird Twilight Zone corollary, kids were enjoying great big bowls of Booberry, never having seen a box of this mysterious “Count Chocula”. Was it a coastal thing, I wondered? My young brain spent hours and hours calculating and re-calculating the possibilities. Why didn’t we get to see Booberry? Did our particular mix of Latin American, Caribbean, Western European and African American cultures subconsciously prefer brown and pink cereal? Was Boo just too cerulean and pastoral for our dirty cityscape? Was he too aloof, too asexual and lowerlimbless for our particular blend of in-your-face machismo? Did his association with a uniform, symmetrical fruit offend the constantly shifting border of our pork-chop scented world? Was he more suited for one of those perfectly square states out west I’d learned about in Geography class? Or did his taste testers judge him to be too artificially flavored for our discerning seven and eight year old liver-and-onion attuned palettes?
Maybe Boo’s slouchy hat and loud bowtie were a little too country bumpkin for our urban sensibilities. Maybe his half-mast eyes and his outstretched arms suggested something sinister and distinctly un-child-friendly… Or maybe his freeloader’s smile and gimme-gimme posture rubbed up against our budding ideas about the value of hard work being handed down to us by our immigrant parents. Was he the lazy, good for nothin’, out-of-town cousin to our neurotic, ambitious, salt-of-the-earth kinfolk? I don’t know.
At least I thought I would never know.
Because then the Internet was invented.
According to my research, General Mills, after enjoying the peak of popularity in the ‘eighties, started limiting the production of the monster cereals to the Halloween season in the early 1990s. So these days, Booberry is only made in the month of October. Well then.
I also just found out that Urban Dictionary calls a separate phone used for calling gurls (their spelling, not mine) a “Boo Berry”- as in, a Blackberry used for calling your Boos. Wow.
Also, Wikipedia would like us all to know there was so much red dye in the original recipe of Frankenberry, kids were experiencing a phenomenon called, ahem, “Frankenberry stool”.
Back at the supermarket, I hadn't yet learned of Frankenberry stool and I had to pick out something. I’d been standing there for a full five minutes looking at the boxes and I needed to buy something to satisfy my craving for sweet crunchiness. I had the usual conversations I have with myself when I have to pick out processed food: how local is it? Is it organic? How many baby seal pups were harmed in the making of this food? Do the chickens have large talons? And suddenly, just like that, gone were my cravings for the good junk. The guilt had settled in and now I just HAD to pick out something more environmentally and gastro-friendly. I probably stood there for another five minutes in that damned aisle, scouring the boxes for the least offensive, least artificially flavored cereal. This is how complicated my life has become. Once upon a time, I wolfed this stuff down without a second thought. Now I have to consider things like diabetes, and genetically modified foods, and pesticides and the fate of the whole fucking polar bear population because WHAT IF I DON’T PICK THE RIGHT ONE AND SOMEONE DIES?
When I first moved to Seattle and admitted that I grew up eating that stuff, my friends recoiled in horror. Why? They wanted to know. Didn’t my mom know about oatmeal? They all studied me with a mix of pity and concern, gently squeezing my biceps and cooing there, there. You didn’t know any better. What about eggs and juice? they wanted to know. What about lentils and rice and sour cream? Lentils and fucking rice? I thought. For breakfast? WHAT?
What they couldn’t figure out is how I still had all my teeth and why I wasn’t living in a trailer park and tending to four different babies from four different fathers. Apparently, sugary cereals are NOT the foundation of a good breakfast out here in Sasquatch Territory and people are not shy about telling you so. It was common knowledge back then that if your breakfast wasn’t packed with whole grains and fiber and sawdust as a kid, you were on a one-way train to the Jerry Springer show by your early twenties.
Now, horrifically, I make those same “Ooooooo…you poor thing” faces when I hear about people’s bad eating habits. I’ve learned that rice and lentils are, in fact, a very good breakfast choice. Oatmeal isn’t just for horses. And it wouldn’t hurt me to have an egg or two during the week instead of just on Sunday. Yes, the good ol’ Northwest has worked its foodie ways into my bloodstream. I still crave (and eat, on occasion) Cheez Doodles and Frankenberry, but I also keep my ‘fridge stocked with things like Harissa and Miso paste and organic, fair trade, bird friendly, shade grown, cooperative produced dark chocolate. That old phrase about how you can take the processed foods out of the girl, but you can’t keep the girl out of the processed foods aisle… so true. So true.
I wound up getting a box of Barbara’s Puffin’ Puffs, an innocuous box of chocolate flavored corn balls that featured a “Hey, dad!” section on the back and directions on how to cut up the empty box so that one could color in the line drawings of the puffins printed on the inside. Yes, the breakfast cereal of my adult life is a gender-equal, organic, recycled art affair. No monsters or artificial colors here. Just friendly seabirds and very calculated doses of all natural cane sugar. Sigh.
I think the production of the monster cereals is slated to start pretty soon. Maybe it’s already begun. Either I imagined it, or I must have actually caught the scent of pulverized blueberry dust in the air. Why else would I be standing in a cereal aisle for ten minutes looking for something I wasn’t even sure General Mills made anymore? Something in me had woken from a deep slumber and was pulling me out of the house, away from the farmer’s market, and into the cereal aisle. Or maybe I was just calcium deficient for a few hours there. Who knows? Either way, I could just TELL something was afoot. Maybe someone had pulled the ol’ recipe out of the vault, dusted off the Willy Wonka style pulleys and levers, and somewhere, probably in a windowless factory in Cleveland, pulled a rusty steam whistle’s ragged cord, thus signaling the seasonal return of my childhood.
Long may you haunt the cereal aisle, Frankenberry.