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I counted 3,450 flakes in a 12-ounce box of Wheaties, crumbs not included. The crumbs were flakes that couldn't withstand the weight of the Nature Valley Granola Bars that were also in the box, but that's General Mills's business. I'm not sure why I counted the flakes, except that I have always taken cold cereal very seriously and with milk. I understand some people put cereal in their coffee, but that's their business.
The Rev. Bob Richards used to say that enough Wheaties were sold in a year to fill the Rose Bowl up to the 56th row. Between the ages of eight and 18, I must have eaten at least 56 rows' worth of Wheaties, Frosted Flakes, Crispy Critters, Corn Chex, Rice Krispies, et cetera ad nauseam. What fun it was of a weekend morning to go through an entire Kellogg's Variety Pack, perforating the cardboard and eating all the varieties right out of the box. They don't make 'em like that anymore.
My appetite for cereal knew no bounds and caused no end of derision from my family. I dreamed once that word of my prowess had reached Battle Creek, Mich. and that I was invited to participate in the world cereal-eating contest. I had to go one-on-one with a chubby boy. We were placed atop two giant bowls and given our choice of cereal, and the first one to finish would be the winner. I forget what he chose, but I selected Rice Krispies, figuring I would have an edge because they would float to the top. I woke up, probably from the thunder of so much snap, crackle and pop, before I found out who won.
Not that I had anything against Wheaties. I looked upon them as a gourmet might view a very good porterhouse. I was even willing to swallow the Breakfast of Champions stuff, which is why I always stoked up on Wheaties before the baseball season. I certainly respected them more than did a friend in college, who plugged the cracks in his dorm room wall with wet Wheaties. Anyone who has ever washed out a bowl of midnight-snack Wheaties the morning after has discovered the strongest substance known to man. Ever wonder why houses aren't made of Wheaties on porcelain?
The flakes themselves appear fairly innocuous. They come in different shapes and sizes, although they are uniformly butterscotch in color. Up close, they look a little ugly, with little hills and valleys.
Wheaties are more than flakes, though. Inside that box, protected by liner paper, are fortune and fame, comedy and tragedy, church and state, thiamin and riboflavin. The 57-year history of Wheaties includes among its cast members Babe Ruth, Jack Armstrong, Lou Gehrig, Shirley Temple, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, The Lone Ranger, Henry Aaron, Bruce Jenner and Ed White. Well, some of those names are bigger than others. In 1937 a young sportscaster for WHO in Des Moines asked the sponsor of his baseball broadcasts for $300, half the cost of a trip to California, so that he could cover the Chicago Cubs in spring training. He got the money, and while he was out West, he passed a screen test at Warner Brothers. Today he's President of the United States. You've probably already guessed the sponsor.
Wheaties deserves a permanent spot in the American cupboard, if only for the beauty of its box, be it the 1-, 8-, 12-or 18-ounce version. The dominant color can only be described as Wheaties orange; it has no place in nature. The hue cries out at shoppers and pries open the lids of drowsy breakfasters. As Dustin Hoffman demonstrated in The Graduate, cereal boxes can make for fascinating reading between slurps.
Stretched across the top of the front of the box are the white letters, increasing in size as we go from w to S, of the trademark. The history of Wheaties, too, kept getting bigger and bigger, starting with its birth in 1924. Like gravity and penicillin, Wheaties was discovered by accident. In 1921 a health clinician in Minneapolis was mixing up a batch of bran gruel for his patients when he spilled some of the mix on a hot stove. Mennen-berg or Minniberg—his name has been crushed by the granola bar of time—heard the gruel crackle and sizzle, and he took a taste. Delicious, he thought. He took his cooled gruel to the people at Minneapolis' Washburn Crosby Company, which in 1928 would merge with three other mills to become General Mills. Favorably impressed, Washburn Crosby gave Mr. M. use of a laboratory. Alas, his flakes crumbled too easily and turned to dust in a box.
Exit Mr. M., enter George Cormack, Washburn Crosby's head miller. He liked the wheat cereal idea and kept experimenting with the flakes. He tested 36 varieties of wheat. He cracked them, he steamed them, he mixed them with syrup, he cooked them, he dried them, he rolled them. Finally, he found the perfect flake.
What to name them? A companywide contest was held, and the winner was Jane Bausman, the wife of the export manager. Her Wheaties won out over such entries as Nutties and Gold Medal Wheat Flakes. In 1924 Washburn Crosby decided to test-market the new cereal in the Illinois cities of Danville, Joliet and Peoria.