Column: May I recommend the cold breakfast cereal?
The amount of choice in L.A. restaurants is so great as to be almost paralyzing. There are the perfectly crunchy chả giò from Golden Deli, served with a platter of cold, crisp herbs. There’s nuclear test-level spicy, soupy noodles from Hunan Chilli King. There’s the somehow underrated burger from Go Get Em Tiger, possibly the best in the whole city.
Hot and greasy; subtle and nuanced; saucy and umami-rich — we’ve got all of it. And as a person who works in food, I supposedly have a deeper, more knowledgeable appreciation in this area than your average person.
But I have a confession to make. More than any other single thing, I eat breakfast cereal. I eat cereal in the morning. I eat it in the middle of the day. It’s a perfect tide-me-over snack during that vespers time when you don’t want to spoil your dinner but need something not too heavy to take the edge off. And it is, of course, ideal in the middle of the night. I love cereal, and I don’t ever really tire of it.
There are certainly others who adore cereal as much, or more, than I do. But if I were forced to defend my pedigree, I might show you the life-sized plush box of Cheerios I bought a few years ago from British artist Lucy Sparrow. I would point out my personal email address, which honors cold cereal. I’d have you read the cereal rankings I wrote for this publication. And I would, maybe, direct you to an entire sonnet cycle I wrote in 2015 that’s dedicated to breakfast cereal. Yes, they’re in iambic pentameter. The meter scans and everything.
There are foods you seek out because of how they taste. And I love the cold, crunchy first bite of a bowl of cereal. But there are others you seek out not primarily for gustatory reasons but because they are dependable.
The best thing about cereal is that it doesn’t change. It’s tasted the same since I was 5 and it will taste the same when I am ready to leave this earthly realm. It’s been a particular godsend during this past year, when nothing was certain and there were few constants, save for loneliness and the reliable need to ingest calories at least once or twice a day.
Cereal is childhood, of course. Weekday mornings with a big bowl of Cheerios or Life (we weren’t allowed sugar cereals) chuckling at “Calvin and Hobbes” or “Peanuts,” or me asking my dad to explain “Doonesbury” to me. Both parents worked, so cereal became an easy go-to snack for a kid who couldn’t cook, killing time between the hours of 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.
In his book “Cigarettes Are Sublime,” Richard Klein borrows inspiration from 19th century French thinkers and salon sitter-arounders to expand upon the idea that smoking a cigarette is as much about pleasure as it is “allow[ing] one to open a parenthesis in the time of ordinary experience.” Taking a smoke break, he writes, gives a person permission to “install, however briefly, a time outside itself.”
It’s like hitting the pause button on the world, in other words. And though it might be somewhat overwrought language to describe a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats, cereal operates in a capacity similar to smoking a cigarette. It’s as much about the sensory pleasure as it is the experience. Carving out a tiny pocket within the relentless crush of time to sit, relax and regress a little. There’s a reason some of the most commonly stolen items from my college’s dining hall were the cereal dispensers: There’s no easier way to take a five-minute trip back home.
Recently, I’ve been watching a Japanese show on Netflix called “Midnight Diner.” It’s a simple, quiet episodic series that tracks people coming and going from an all-night Tokyo diner. There’s an exaggerated soap-opera quality to the story arcs and charmingly shabby production values.
The show revolves around food, and a diner proprietor who promises to make any dish his customers desire, “as long as I have ingredients for it.” But given the choice to eat almost anything — quite literally — under the sun, diners almost always want the simple and childlike: Hot dogs sliced to resemble an octopus. An omelet. Warm rice with a pat of butter on it.
It’s a reminder of food’s most powerful quality: its ability to comfort and transport. And while we have the finest produce in the country at our disposal at our farmers markets, dishes made with skill and passion by talented chefs and an encyclopedia of different cultures’ foods within a 30-mile radius, sometimes you just want to open a door to a different place.
Carefully slide one finger under the box top so as not to rip the flap. Open the plastic bag on one end, 3 or 4 inches only, so Dad doesn’t yell at you about the cereal going stale. Listen to the cheerful ceramic chime of the cereal pieces dropping into the bowl and add a generous pour of 2% milk.
Eat the cereal. Maybe add a little more to the leftover milk, if there is any. Block everything out for a while: deadlines, stress, responsibilities. It’ll all be there when you get back.
It's a date
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