Cereal addiction

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on May 04, 2018

Health issues: Over 100 years later, the claims on cereal boxes continue to remain suspect   -  ISTOCK.COM/ANNA PUSTYNNIKOVA

An empty fridge in a rent-free apartment leads to an obsession with a breakfast option — one that was the outcome of a sanctimonious religious movement

It was a story that began 30 years ago, when I was an impoverished student in Los Angeles. Like other Indian students on campus, I was determined to make the most of my American Adventure. The moment a long weekend approached, I decided to visit San Francisco.

Reem, Vani and I planned the trip together. Vani and I were great friends. Reem was a friend too — more to the point, he was designated driver and essential IITian. As an IITian, he knew IITians all over the US. Which meant he had access to free accommodation all over the US.

Reem’s job was to find free accommodation in San Francisco — and he managed with remarkable efficiency. He had a friend-of-sorts in Stanford who was heading out for his own weekend trip. So there was an empty apartment for us on the Stanford campus.

Unfortunately, Reem was a better seeker-of-accommodation than driver. Or perhaps Vani and I were rotten navigators. We got lost on the outskirts of San Francisco, so it was seriously late when we reached the apartment. Our host had left for his own trip, but had slipped the house key under the doormat.

We never met our host. All we knew about him was that he was a super-brain, that he was studying computer science, and that he had an empty fridge. This was a problem. It was late and cold. None of us wanted to get back into the car again. But however hard we hunted, there wasn’t a slice of bread, dab of butter or drop of milk in that apartment.

It was then that we spotted the neat array of cardboard boxes on top of the fridge. Three boxes of Just Right cereal.

Without much ado, we ripped open one and poured the mixture of toasty grain, sultanas and apricots into bowls. A mouthful later, we agreed that the meal was … well… just right. Unlike the soggy cornflakes and vile flavoured-oatmeal sachets that we usually bought — after carefully checking prices and cutting coupons — this cereal came as a wonderful surprise. Vani and I were thrilled. Reem grumbled a bit about cereal without milk. But he got used to it.

Over the next three days, we rode the cable car; explored the crookedest street in the world; visited Cannery Row; and ate Kung Pao chicken in Chinatown. Strangely enough, we also ate loads of cereal in that empty Stanford kitchen. Not because we had to, but because we enjoyed it.

Vani and I planned to replace the boxes that we’d gobbled. But a mix-up involving the apartment keys foiled our intentions.

Years later, I read in the newspapers that our Stanford host had sold his dotcom company for billions of dollars. It still mortifies me that there’s a dotcom billionaire out there who thinks of me as a common cereal snatcher.

At any rate, those three days in San Francisco transformed me into a cereal addict. The kind of person who can consume muesli for three meals, and then use it as a topping for dessert. Who lingers in the breakfast cereal aisles of supermarkets. And who ignores the siren lure of hot dosas, and heads straight for the granola bar. Also, unfortunately, the kind of person who draws frowns from the healthy-eating brigade.

For although breakfast cereals have many advantages — they are delicious and convenient; they come with toppings that range from marshmallow dinosaurs to toffee chunks; they are shaped like rings and stars and chocolate-filled chunks — they are not entirely wholesome.

This is ironic, given that the original breakfast cereal was born in a prim health resort, and as the outcome of a sanctimonious religious movement.

In the early 1800s, various preachers in the US believed that eating meat at breakfast excited carnal passions. This launched a quest for vegetarian options. James Caleb Jackson, who ran a water cure resort, came up lumps made of slow-cooked wheat and water. The eventual product was impractical and unappetising, but profitable.

Similarly John Kellogg, a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, set up a sanatorium in Battle Creek in Michigan where he insisted on an exercise regimen, cold-water baths and his very own granola. Later, his commercial-minded brother added sugar to the rather grim concoction. This was a clever move. Not only did the sugar stop the granola from tasting like “horse food”, it also laid the foundation for a food empire.

Meanwhile, Charles Post, a former patient at Kellogg’s sanatorium, came up with his own cereal — Grape-Nuts. The Battle of Battle Creek had well and truly begun. By the early 1900s, there were over 100 factories whipping up cereals in that tiny town — each claiming extravagant health benefits.

Most of these were outright lies. Over 100 years later, the claims on cereal boxes continue to remain suspect. Luckily, there seems to be a new generation of guilt-free cereals at hand. Millet muesli, oat and cranberry chunks and ragi bites are stacked high on the aisles of virtual supermarkets. And feature regularly in my virtual shopping cart.

But so do the ingredients that allow me to whip up my very own granola. Which makes loads of sense for serial cerealists like me.

Good-For-You Granola

4 1/2 cups rolled oats (not steel cut or quick cooking)

1 1/2 cup raw nuts and seeds

(like sliced almonds, chopped pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds)

1/2 cup dried fruit (like

chopped dried apricots,

cranberries, raisins)

1 tsp cinnamon

1 pinch salt

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup butter or vegetable oil

1 tsp vanilla extract


1 Preheat the oven to 150°C.

2 Combine the dry ingredients, excluding dried fruit. Combine honey, butter and vanilla. Then combine the wet and dry ingredients and taste. Now spread on baking tray and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, tossing twice.

3 Stir in the dried fruit. Cool. Store in an airtight container

Shabnam Minwalla   -  BUSINESS LINE


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Shy Supergirl. Her latest book, What Maya Saw, is now in bookstores

Published on May 04, 2018

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