Imagine the embarrassment. Imagine the shame. Marty Gitlin’s daughter eats her breakfast cereal straight out of the box.
“My daughter eats cereal with no milk, but I still love her,” said Mr. Gitlin, who is something of an authority on the subject of cereal. He literally wrote the book about it — The Great American Cereal Book, an encyclopedic look at America’s favorite breakfast food, was published last year.
Speaking from his home in a suburb of Cleveland, Mr. Gitlin said he still eats cereal every day for breakfast and most nights for an after-dinner snack. But that is nothing compared to his youth.
“When I was a kid, I was an absolute cereal freak. I had a rule in which I had to have at least one bowl of every cereal on the market. There were so many cereals out, and whenever there was a commercial for a new cereal would run to my mother and say she had to buy it so I could have a bowl of it,” he said.
“When you are a child, anything that distinguishes you from other kids makes you feel special.”
Several years ago, he realized that no one had written a book that attempted to catalog all, or at least most, of the cereals ever made in America. The result of his efforts, with co-writer Topher Ellis, is a brightly colored, sprightly designed book listing some 800 cereals, from Addams Family (made from 1991-1993 and marketed with the slogan “The creepy, crunchy cereal with the great taste you’ll scream for”) to Zo (“The original Vitamin B breakfast food” that was first sold in 1928).
The first ready-to-eat cold cereal was Granula, in 1863 — this year marks the 150th anniversary of the invention of cold cereal, he noted. Granula was ground biscuits made from graham flour, and was promoted as a cure for digestive disorders. Eating it, though, was a bit of a trial; it was so hard, it had to be soaked overnight in milk just to become edible.
Other, similar products soon followed, including Granola and Granose Flakes, making many of the same claims. Shredded Wheat came out in 1892, making it, as Mr. Gitlin put it, “the oldest living cereal.”
For the first several decades, cereals were meant to be wholesome and healthy, and were primarily geared toward adults. But with the onslaught of the Baby Boomers came an unquenchable new market: children, and a new type of highly sugared cereals to appeal to them. That was when we started seeing such cereals as Frosted Sugar Stars, Sugar Puffs, and Froot Loops, which has always been Mr. Gitlin’s favorite by far.
In the ’70s, many Americans began looking for a healthier lifestyle, so natural cereals and those with Granola in their names began competing with other sugary newcomers, such as Count Chocula and Cookie Crisp (with “artificial chocolate chip flavor,” it is still being produced).
Beginning around 1980, it all became about branding. Countless cereals were created to cash in on the popularity of movies, television shows, and games. Pac Man had its own cereal, and the movie The Polar Express. Hannah Montana had her own cereal, and even Mr. T (“I pity the fool who don’t eat my cereal”).
“Everything about cereal is fun,” Mr. Gitlin said. “Reading the cereal box is fun, the cereal toys are fun, the spokescharacters are fun. Not many morose thoughts go through your mind when Sonny the Cuckoo Bird says ‘I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,’ ”
Yet he is serious about cereal. At any given time, he estimates he has between 30 and 40 boxes of cereal in his house. His favorites, which the former sportswriter calls his first team, are in alphabetical order in a cabinet in the kitchen. Others are stored on top of the refrigerator. He puts boxes that he has not yet opened in the basement. And in a bottom cupboard in the kitchen are the ones that his wife and children like more than he does.
“That is my second team. If I run out of one that I like, sometimes I’ll eat one of those, I’ll bring it up from the Minors,” he said.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.