Investigation into Dry cereal
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Today we are opening an informal investigation into Dry Cereal
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Disclaimer! This episode on dry cereal got way-way-way more out of control then I expected! What started out as an investigation into cereal turned into a deep dive into gastrointestinal diseases, the war on masturbation, corporate legal battles, suicide, and ultimately the making of the official informal investigation podcast cereal. Consider yourselves warned!
To get our story started let's take you back to the breakfast table before the 20th century. Generally there were 2 versions of the American breakfast:
- If you were rich it was a meat and fat heavy meal consisting of bacon, gravy, fried potatoes, and who knows what else. Obviously this was not a very healthy way to start your day.
- If you were poor you would eat hot cereals from grain whether it be porridge, gruel or mush. I wasn’t exactly sure the difference between these. With a little help from wikipedia it appears Porridge is a breakfast cereal made by boiling ground or crushed grain in water or milk. Gruel is similar to porridge however it is generally thinner. Mush on the other hand is a cornmeal porridge that can either be served as is or allowed to set then cut into squares and fried. These hot cereals were labor intensive requiring hours of boiling over wood stoves every morning. I bet all the mothers out there were starting to get fed up needing to wake up hours early to make some hardly appreciated mush for their family
The obvious disadvantages of these two breakfast options left a vacuum for a revolution of American breakfast.
Let’s jump in!
In 1875 the now popular oatmeal was brought to the market by Henry Parsons Crowell. First he made cracked oats then later on the technology was developed to make rolled oats. His company was originally called the Consolidated Oatmeal Company and later switched their name to Quaker Oats - as this sounds a lot more wholesome. I can’t imagine why anyone would put consolidated and oatmeal in the same sentence - but that’s just me. Making oatmeal still took a decent amount of time as instant oats had not yet been invented. I assume Crowell's oats were similar to the old fashioned Quaker Oats we have today. If only he knew one day his breakthrough hot cereal would be called old fashioned. Another fun fact...those cylindrical containers we buy oatmeal in were created by Crowell and a major breakthrough in food packaging at that time.
Where exactly the story of dry cereal begins is unclear. Some people start with Sylvester Graham. He was the maker of flour and these bread nuggets which later got bastardized into what we know as the graham cracker. Sylvester Graham -- Graham cracker -- Yep, mind blown! This story is going to become a who’s who of American food manufacturing. Some tell a story where grahams biscuits were too hard to chew so people started to soak them in milk and then call this the beginning of dry cereal. Dry - sure but cereal I dono...
Graham was a presbyterian minister and called himself a christian physiologist and created the American physiological society(still around today and can be found at physiology.org if you're into that kinda thing). He is best remembered for inventing the graham cracker - the American cookie enjoyed by Americans to this day. They are the essential ingredient in the campfire delicacy known as s'mores - a graham cracker - chocolate - marshmallow sandwich. These were not our modern day grammies but simply made from whole wheat flour and water only - more like Matza probably. The purpose of these little nuggets were part of his program to stop sexual impurity and the urge to masturbate. It seems everyone at this time in history had a bone to pick with masturbation. In my opinion graham was not the inventor of modern day cereals but rather the maker of a really bland hard to chew cracker.
So who invented cold cereal? We likely won’t ever know for sure. The top contenders are one of the Kellogg brothers (of Kellogg cereals), CW Post (This is the Post of Post cereals) or Henry perky the inventor of shredded wheat.
That being said I am almost certain the idea was born in the head of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg - one of the two notable Kellogg brothers to this story.
Let’s talk about him!
His contributions to society were much more far reaching than a cereal monger. He was a talented physician, opened his own hospital called the sanitarium, wrote numerous books and treated thousands of patients.
Like many physicians his dedication to medicine started with his own personal ailments. In his younger years he had “consumption” aka pulmonary tuberculosis, colitis, severe constipation, and an anal fissure - thats a rip in your butt hole and ya, it’s as painful as it sounds. Now imagine being constipated with a rip in your butt hole - that really hurts. It’s no wonder he developed an obsession with colon health and taught all his patients the importance of multiple soft BM's daily. When you have an anal fissure you want your BM’s to be as soft as possible so they just slide out and allow the wound to heal.
He actually went to medical school 3 times. The first 2 times he felt his schooling did not provide him with adequate education. This ultimately led him to Bellevue Hospital Medical college where the education met his expectations.
It seems he first got the idea of ready to eat breakfast cereal while in medical school. While a medical student he could not afford the time to make a hot bowl of porridge or afford the price of salted meats (he was also a vegetarian btw). At the same time he needed something that would produce his desired 6 soft bowel movements every day.
I can actually relate to this. Back in my schooling days I perfected the eggrito, thermos oats, and the rapid PBJ assembly line.
In medical school you quickly figure out that the amount of learning that needs to happen is greater than the amount of time you have to learn it in. You quickly discover you need maximum efficiency in all aspects of your life.
- My first med school discovery was thermos oats. This is a technique to cook oatmeal using a thermos so you don't have to stand there stirring a pot for half an hour. I actually made a youtube video on this while I was in school. You can find this on the informal investigation youtube channel.
- My next idea was the Eggrito. This is a fast egg sandwich I created where you place a corn tortilla on a plate, crack an egg on top of it, add any toppings you would like then place another corn tort on top. This plate is then placed in the microwave. The end result is an egg sandwich. I found this was the only way to make edible eggs in the microwave because the torts help contain the moisture in the eggs.
- My final contribution to fast food in medical school was my PB and J sandwich making technique. I would pretty much make an entire loaf of bread worth of PB and J’s at once and then put it back in the loaf bag. This way for lunch all I needed to do was reach into the bag and grab a sandwich!
If you decided to only try the above diet for a day(i don’t necessarily recommend this) it would likely cost you less then $2. Dr. Kellogg reported in a letter that once he had his diet locked in he was living on 6 cents/day.
Let's get back to cereal!
The next step in the dry cereal journey was at Dr. Kellogg's hospital/medical spa called the sanitarium or the san for short. At the San they served a variety of health foods. One of the notable ones to this topic was something called Granula. This was a bread made from wheat, corn, and oats that was then forced through a sieve. I’m assuming these looked like bread crumbs. It seems these were a hit at the san because people would even buy boxes of the stuff for the road. Dr. Kelloggs brother Will even set up a mail order business for Granula. Unfortunately it seems another Doc named James Jackson from New York already invented a cereal called Granula and sued Dr. Kellogg forcing him to change the name to granola. Will Kellogg built up their Granola business to a point where they were supposedly selling 2 tons of granola every week.
Around this time an eclectic man named Henry Perky who was originally a school teacher then a Grocer then an attorney, a Nebraska senator and finally the proud inventor of shredded wheat. He was a chronic sufferer of indigestion; he read everything he could to find a cure. With the help of a machinist friend he created a machine that made his little whole wheat mattresses. After some tweaking this became known as shredded wheat. He later held more than 40 patents for machines that made cereal. Supposedly Perky and the Kelloggs interfaced when the Kelloggs were going to buy his shredded wheat business but the deal ultimately fell through.
Following the failure of the shredded wheat deal the Kelloggs created a test kitchen in the basement of the San where they started working on their flaked cereals. The Kellogg’s original cereal creation was likely the combined work of Dr. Kellogg, his wife Ella, and his brother Will. After many experiments in their test kitchen they created wheat flakes that they called Gran-ose. Gran which stood for grain and ose - Which i’m not quite sure about but its typically seen as a suffix for sugars in chemistry. These flakes were a big hit at the san and the patients especially liked them in milk.
Next on our list is CW Post. Post suffered from various GI ailments and was a patient of Dr. Kellogg at the San. At the time he was a failed businessman and could not pay his medical bills. To pay for services rendered he helped out in the Sans experimental kitchen. This gave him full access to Kellogg's recipes. Soon after leaving the San he created his own food manufacturing business. His first successful product was a coffee substitute called Postum. This showed a shocking resemblance to the Kelloggs “minute brew.” His first cereal was called grape nuts that bore a strong resemblance to Kellogg's granola but he added a little extra sweetness. He eventually copied their flaked cereal creating “Post Toasties.”
Following Post’s success off the backs of the Kellogs. Will Kellogg went full force into cereal experimentation. It was at this point he decided cereal needs to also taste good and changed the wheat flakes to corn flakes. He also added sugar, malt, and salt. These changes did not go over well when Dr. Kellogg found out.
In January 1906 Will bought the rights to corn flakes from his brother for $170,000 - over 4 million now - a - days. To understand how Will was able to turn a small health care company into a corporate behemoth that would be doing over a billion dollars in sales every year let's talk about Will Kellogg who was at least equally impressive to his brother John.
As a child Will was berated and felt to have inferior intellect to his older brother John Harvey. He was berated by his teachers for not doing well in school and his schooling ended at age 13. He only discovered years later that the reason he did not do well in school was simply because he needed glasses. This was the reason he later instructed his foundation to focus on children's dental and eye care.
His adult life started out not all that different. He worked for his brother for the majority of his younger years. He successfully ran the Sanitarium along with all of its side businesses to include publishing company and food company. Dr. Kellogg, unlike Will, was not a nice boss. It was reported that he would make Will take notes for him while he was taking each of his 6 bowel movements for that day.
It is no doubt that running the San was the training ground for Will to be crowned the corn flake king only six years after buying the company.
Following Wills acquisition of the food company he was strapped for cash and needed money to start his cereal empire. He was not able to even find a bank that would give him a loan back then. They felt the idea of cold cereal was still ridiculous.
Wills success and the success of the cereal industry was because of multiple reasons that all perfectly fell into place at that time. Modern mechanized factories were being built, railroads were being built, increase in popularity of the telephone and telegraph, government regulations ensuring the safety of the milk supply, and of course Will’s ingenuity.
Wills brilliant use of the new advertising industry transitioned the modestly sized Battle Creek Michigan company into a national and then global brand.
He built the largest electrical sign at that time and placed it on the mecca building in times square. The sign was a boys face that measured 40 feet high. The boy was frowning and it read “ I want Kelloggs toasted corn flakes.” Then the sign switched to a smile and read “I got Kelloggs toasted corn flakes.”
He also advertised in magazines and newspapers. Of his many ad campaigns one was called the wink campaign - he advertised that women wink at their grocers to receive a free package of something called “KTC” - I'm assuming this is Kellogg’s Toasted Corn flakes.
He further spearheaded the idea of giving free samples. In Dayton Ohio he had door to door salesmen hand out free samples.
Also he was the first to have the idea to place a free toy on the bottom of the cereal box. Not only did this encourage children to encourage their parents to buy Kellogg’s toasted corn flakes; The toy was cheaper by volume than the flakes and actually saved him money.
And then of course there were chants/slogans
K-E- double L - O - Double good Kellogg's best to you!
And our three friends snap crackle and pop.
Their campaigns also coined breakfast as the “The most important meal of the day” His words are still burnt into the minds of Americans. When I was in medical training I would be counseling patients on weight loss and we would be going over their diet. Naturally we would start off with breakfast. There were many times that I found myself listening to patients explaining to me how they made sure to eat a large breakfast “because it's the most important meal of the day.” This ad campaign is so ingrained in American society that I needed to explain to people that eating more even if it was for breakfast is not conducive to losing weight.
Some time near the end of this investigation I went on a first date with a lady we will call Meg - because that is actually her name. Trying to sound multidimensional I told her about the podcast and my investigation into cereal. She asked me how I became interested in dry cereal. How did I get so into this?
The reason is a combination of fascination and disgust.
Fascination - because when I was kid and remember all the advertisements and dreamy cereals. Walking into a supermarket and seeing an entire wall of interesting flavored sweets I had a chance at convincing my parents were a legitimate meal substitute. As a child my parents wisely did not let me eat any mainstream cereals. The ones I ate came from a health food store and were made more in the image of Dr. Kellogg then Will, Post and the others.
Disgust - because it is one of the most inaccurately represented foods. Once a health food and now extremely unhealthy and likely bares some responsibility for childhood obesity. It is also not at all a cheap food - I can’t tell you how many times people tell me they eat cereal because they cannot afford other foods. Let's clear this up once and for all - dry cereal is not cheap - you are actually being robbed! Let's take a walk down the cereal aisle. The average box of cereal will run you 3-6$ and contains around 350 grams of cereal. Now compare that to a small container of oatmeal that sells for 2-3$, far more healthy and contains 850g of cereal.
Regardless of my feelings above I was determined to join this dreamy dry cereal saga! I was going to make my own dry cereal that would make the American breakfast even more convenient and taste! Here enters my creation - Coffee Bean Puffs. In looking for a base grain I wanted something that would provide some nutrition. My focus went to puffed grains - puffed rice, puffed corn, puffed wheat. You may have seen the fake versions of these puffed grains when you buy Rice Krispies, Corn Pops, and Smacks - these are just some kind of batter shaped into what these puffed grains are supposed to look like.
Let's get back to my puffed grains! After researching how to puff grains - which you can do at home, I realized that it is infinitely easier to buy already puffed grains. I experimented with these 3 grains and finally went with puffed wheat. Puffed wheat has this fantastic nutty flavor, great crunch, and is shaped like a coffee bean. I then found some extremely high end instant coffee, added in vanilla extract, sugar and a small amount of boiling water. After allowing the mixture to cool I added it to the puffed wheat and allowed it to dry in a 170 deg oven. The final product is what I decided to call Coffee Bean Puffs. Every bowl of coffee bean puffs is equivalent to one cup of coffee. You poor a bowl of coffee bean puffs, add milk and start eating. The Milk will soon turn into a fantastic tasting vanilla latte just like the milk of coco pebbles turns to chocolate milk. By eating Coffee Bean Puffs you are eating breakfast and drinking coffee at the same time. You're Welcome world! If you're interested in the recipe please go to informalinvestigation.com, sign up for our mailing list and we will send you the recipe for free!
Before concluding this episode I need to give a huge shout out to Howard Markel the author of The Kelloggs. It was this book that inspired this episode and where I learned much of the history mentioned in this episode.
With that we are going to close this investigation. If you enjoyed this podcast please subscribe to be notified about our upcoming episodes. Also, Check the links in our show notes for the resources discussed in this episode on informalinvestigation.com. We have Just started an instagram account where you can see pictures from our investigation. Our handle is informal_investigation.