I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, Saturday mornings were magical. I could hardly be pried out of bed for school during the week. But come Saturday morning, I was up early, sitting on the floor in front of the TV watching cartoons! The good stuff, like Jonny Quest, Scooby-Doo, The Jetsons, and Schoolhouse Rock! And right there with cartoon time was a big bowl of cereal covered in cold milk.
Now that I’ve set that mental image, I bet many of you have the same memory of cartoons and a favorite cereal. For the longest time, my favorite was a big ol’ bowl of Honeycomb! At some point I switched to Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries. Occasionally I would stray into a bowl of Lucky Charms, Honey Smacks, or Frosted Flakes. Back then we ate more sugar in one bowl of Saturday morning cereal than whole villages in third world countries ate in a week!
There’s no telling how many times I rooted around up to my elbows in a box of cereal to fish out a little prize. I still remember cutting off the back of a box of Alpha-Bits before it was even empty because there was a cardboard 45 record of The Jackson 5 singing “ABC” that actually worked.
There was always that miracle moment when the allotted milk turned out to be just right for the amount of cereal. But of course, if you wound up with a bit of extra milk you just picked that bowl up and drank the last of the newly flavored milk straight from the edge of the bowl.
That walk down memory lane leads me to my point: I have a theory that the richness of this country – the proof of the success of capitalism and the free market – can be demonstrated on any given day by simply walking down the cereal aisle at the local grocery store.
Think about it. You push your shopping basket onto the cereal aisle, and for no less than 50 yards you are faced with a non-stop menagerie of brightly colored boxes stacked from floor to head-high, containing the ultimate in dry goods: breakfast cereal. Today, if you’re uncertain what cereal you’re planning to buy, you could spend half your time in the grocery store just perusing the overwhelming number of options. “Like religion, politics, and family planning, cereal is not a topic to be brought up in public,” comedienne Erma Bombeck once said. “It’s too controversial.”
Cereal is a uniquely American phenomenon. The first cereal was allegedly invented in 1863 by a New Yorker named James Caleb Jackson who owned a healthcare sanitarium. His invention was called “granula,” and was basically a graham flour dough that he dried and broke into hard shapes that had to be soaked in milk overnight before they could be eaten. It sounds like pieces of cinder block, but it apparently caught on.
Kellogg and Post both came up with their own versions. Then came Grape-Nuts in the late 1800s, Puffed Rice before WWI and Wheaties in the ’20s. Cheerios came along in the 1940s, and Frosted Flakes in the ’50s. By the ’70s, the sugared cereal wars were in full swing, and in the late ’90s, cereal got virtuous and the healthy brands began taking up part of the cereal aisle.
The cold cereal industry became a worldwide powerhouse. In 2015 alone, General Mills sold almost $1 billion worldwide in plain Cheerios! In 2021, breakfast cereal in the U.S. alone generated $24.2 billion in revenue. That same year, breakfast cereal totaled approximately $64.3 billion globally and shows no sign of letting up, as global cereal sales are projected to reach $95 billion by 2030. That’s amazing! And y’all, that’s classic America.
I find this fascinating. But I also believe it clearly illustrates that we live in the most amazing country in history. One man created some dry bricks to soak in milk, spawning one of the largest sectors of the manufactured food industry in the world only 150 years later.
Capitalism did that.
It is so easy to take all that we are as a nation for granted. We are a nation with all the possibilities and an amazing number of choices. The breakfast aisle of your corner grocery is proof that we are not a society that believes in being confined or limited in any way. In America, regardless of your current situation, you have the ability to wake up in the morning and change your lot in life.
In this country, you can dig ditches until you own your own shovel, and then two shovels, and then hire someone else to tote that extra shovel, and the next thing you know, you have your own crew digging ditches. Any country that can offer hundreds of different versions of breakfast cereal can also offer so much more.
Now that I’ve enlightened you about the wonders of breakfast cereal, I hope you never look at the cereal aisle the same way again. And every time you pour out some of your favorite crunchy goodness and pour milk over it, take note that in that one bowl, there is more than just a few minutes of eating … that’s a bowl full of ’Merica!