The Supreme Challenge

Everyone has something they can’t resist. Maybe it’s Hershey’s kisses, or honey-roasted peanuts — but we all have some weakness that we are powerless to defy.

For me, it’s Frosted Flakes. They’ve been my favorite cereal since I was a kid — at least, since Quisp and Quake crossed the Rainbow Bridge to Cereal Heaven. On a Saturday mornings I would fix heaping mixing bowls of Frosted Flakes and spoon them down while watching cartoons. And, even today, if there is a box of Frosted Flakes around I know I will eat it all, and probably in one sugar-frosted orgy of cereal and whole milk gluttony that will leave me feeling scarred and guilty for weeks. As a result, Frosted Flakes have been permanently banned from the house.

However, I stupidly mentioned my terrible secret to a friend recently, and when we had friends over last night she brought this box as a gift. So now I’ve got Tony the Tiger staring me in the face, posing the supreme challenge: how long can I go before I inevitably succumb to temptation and gobble down the whole box?

Cereal Killing

Cereal has been in the news a lot lately.

The Washington Post letters to the editor page has seen a significant debate back and forth on whether cereal is a good way to start the day at breakfast, or whether sugary cereals have ruined the kind of breakfast Americans used to eat.  The President of “Morning Foods” for Kellogg’s wrote in to emphasize the nutritional value of a cereal breakfast, noting that “[a] serving of cereal and a half-cup of skim milk can provide protein and four nutrients most people don’t get enough of: fiber, calcium, vitamin D and potassium. That meal is also 152 calories; a bagel with cream cheese has more than double the calories and saturated fat.”  He added that “Kellogg’s offers more than 20 cereals that provide a good source of protein when eaten with a half-cup of milk, and more than 90 percent of our cereals have 10 grams or less of sugar per 30-gram serving.”

f14cc6b5-59c8-4468-b1be-a50e3689fb18_1-303be2af9801047b84102e79b4624761I’m not sure what a “30-gram serving” is, but of course the problem with cereal is not whether you can structure a breakfast that makes sense from a nutritional standpoint.  No, the problem is moderation and portion control.  Even if people knew what a “30-gram serving” looks like, they end up eating heaping mixing bowls of cereal while they’re watching TV.  Or, at least, I do — which is why we have a longstanding rule to not have any cereal around our house.  In my case, where I’m helpless to resist the lure of Frosted Flakes and would eat a whole box if given the opportunity, total abstinence is the only practical course.

And here’s another issue for cereal manufacturers:  millennials aren’t eating it.  But their objection isn’t nutritional in nature; instead, according to survey data, many millennials apparently don’t like eating cereal for breakfast because you have to clean up after eating it.  The millennials prefer yogurt cups and breakfast sandwiches because you can just throw the remains away, whereas cereal requires that you rinse off the bowl and spoon and put them in the dishwasher.  This has caused some people to make fun of millennials as lazy, but I think millennials simply acknowledge an important point — if you don’t fully rinse off the bowl after you’ve eaten cereal, the remains of the cereal and the milk create some kind of chemical bond with the bowl, leaving the flakes seemingly welded to the sides of the bowl, that makes later clean-up an enormous hassle.  If you’re rushing to get to work in the morning, therefore, maybe cereal isn’t for you.

Poor cereal!  Caught between the Scylla of poor nutritional value and the Charybdis of too much work to consume!

Cereal Dreams

Last night I had one of those vivid dreams where every element and action seems to be etched in exceptional clarity.  It was so realistic that I woke up feeling guilty and shaken about my dreamland activities.

In1422355043742-1776787770 the dream, I was eating a gigantic, heaping bowl of Froot Loops.  I was relishing each sweet, crunchy mouthful of the multicolored morsels, but was wracked with regret at the same time.  I recognized with horror that, on a low-carb diet, a colossal serving of Froot Loops and milk was absolutely verboten.  And yet, confronted with a bowlful of diet-destroying deliciousness, my dream self could not resist temptation and dug in anyway.

So, I’ve  reached the point where my anxiety dreams no longer are about the young me being chased by monsters, or the teenage me being exposed to terrible humiliation, or the young adult me forgetting about a crucial law school test until the very day of the exam.  Now my subconscious has exposed a new vein of concerns that, having lost some weight, I’ll promptly backslide and end up right back where I started.

It’s kind of pathetic that Froot Loops would be my forbidden fruit, but I think my subconscious got this one right.  Ever since my grandparents took UJ and me to Battle Creek, Michigan for a tour of the Kellogg’s factory that ended with a Froot Loops sundae, I’ve been a fan of Toucan Sam.  We haven’t had a box of any breakfast cereal — much less Froot Loops or, even worse, Frosted Flakes — in our house since I started a low-carb regimen in August precisely because I don’t think I can trust myself around it.

I have to say, though — that big bowl of Froot Loops sure looked good.

At The Hampton Inn Breakfast Bar, Utica, N.Y.

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This morning Kish and I got the most important meal of the day at the Hampton Inn breakfast bar in Utica, N.Y. For something that’s self-serve, buffet-style, and no extra charge — which means you’ve already paid for it — it wasn’t bad.

The oatmeal was hot and good, and I topped it with cranberries, almond slivers, and brown sugar. I had a toasted English muffin, and Kish and I sampled some maple sausage slices and a “bagel topper,” which is scrambled eggs and melted cheese on a toasted bagel half. Not bad, either! The coffee was hot and the OJ was cold. In a nod to green sensibilities, the tray was made of recycled paper, too.

We served ourselves, stoked up in short order, and hit the road in good time. That’s the point.

When Everyone And Everything Seems To Suck

These days America, collectively, is like Mikey in the old TV commercial for Life cereal.  We seem to hate everything — or, more precisely, everyone, or every party, that has anything to do with national politics.

NPR had an interesting story last night about the unusual poll results we are seeing.  President Obama’s general approval numbers not only are plummeting, but public perception of his personal qualities for honesty, trustworthiness, and awareness of the concerns of ordinary Americans also is falling like a brick tossed from the roof of a skyscraper.  And he’s not alone.  Approval ratings for Congress, and for congressional leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, are incredibly low, and their negative ratings are spiking.

I think the mood of abject disgust that these polls reflect is real, and likely to be long-lasting.  The debacle with “Obamacare” and the healthcare.gov website, coming on the heels of the government shutdown, have contributed to that mood, but the sense of fear and loathing has been brewing for some time.

President Obama’s awkward comments about the “Obamacare” rollout, which suggest his seeming disengagement with nuts and bolts decisions and bad news,  his failure to truly monitor important activities, and his apparent discovery that everyday activities like buying insurance can be complicated, aptly capture our concerns about all politicians.  Forget about being competent; are they even paying attention?  Do they feel accountable for blunders that cost taxpayers billions to fix?  Are they so insulated by a phalanx of sycophants and enablers and excuse-makers that they really don’t live in the same world the rest of us occupy?

From time to time during my adult life, people have questioned whether a viable third party could emerge, but America’s two-party system is just too engrained.  These days, however, I wonder:  are the repeated failures we are seeing fraying the ties to political parties for everyone other than the true believers?  Might a significant chunk of Americans be willing to look in a new direction?

Hot Cereal Days

In the Webner household during the 1960s, there was a hard and fast breakfast rule:  during the winter months, you ate hot cereal, period.  No Frosted Flakes or Quake!  No sir, winter was for Malt O Meal, Cream of Wheat, Coco Wheat, Maypo, and particularly Quaker Oats.

On a cold day like today, my mother was a firm believer in the views expressed by this vintage Quaker Oats commercial (which aired in the days of the original, vastly superior Darren on Bewitched).  If it was cold outside, you needed to have something hot and gooey in your stomach when you started your day.

By the end of March, we Webner kids were sick of hot cereal and counting down the days when we could start our morning with something cold and sugary.

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

The riverfront in Porto.

I had a feeling that I would like Portugal. Like Istanbul and Athens, my two favorite cities from the first half of my trip, Portugal seemed like it would be “on the edge” of Europe, so it would have a less touristy, more intimate vibe, inside and outside the hostels. My intuition proved to be correct; Portugal was one of the best parts of my trip so far.

I spent six days in Portugal – three in Lisbon, three in Porto. Both cities were beautiful, thanks to plenty of hilly views, non-stop sunshine, and to the Portuguese custom of covering the outsides of buildings with colorful tiles. Unfortunately, the Portuguese also have a less pleasant custom of making their sidewalks out of bits of slippery tiles.

The Portuguese tile style.

More tiled buildings.

Lisbon was great, but gritty. Its oceanfront is taken up by a busy road and some decrepit buildings. It’s impossible – for a young man, at least – to take a walk without a few guys coming up to you and whispering “hashish, marijuana, coke.”

The main thoroughfare in Lisbon.

Another view of Lisbon.

Porto was my favorite of the two cities. In fact, it would rank near the top of my list of my favorite destinations on my trip. It has a beautiful riverfront with steep banks occupied here and there by layers of buildings, many of them abandoned and falling apart, but in a charming way (for some reason, deteriorating buildings look good in Europe but not in America). There are many tall bridges spanning the river, including one designed by Gustav Eiffel. Porto’s riverfront is one of the places that gave me a specific sensation that I’ll always remember.

Porto's riverfront.

The view of the riverfront from the top of Eiffel's bridge.

An abandoned building by the river.

Porto also has many lovely churches which use the tiled-exterior style.

I turned 25 the day I arrived in Porto, so I got a nice seafood dinner, compliments of my mom and dad. A pair of American couples at the table next to mine struck up a conversation with me, and when they learned it was my birthday they bought me a slice of cake.

Strangely, one of my favorite things about Portugal was that there weren’t many famous museums and historical sights that I felt obligated to go to. The only item on my agenda was to enjoy the beauty and the culture. This came at a welcome time; after traveling more than two and a half months, I was starting to feel a little burnt out. I took lots of naps, especially in the hammock they had in the backyard of my hostel in Lisbon.

I did some sightseeing, however. I took a daytrip from Lisbon to Sintra, where I hiked up to a 9th-century Moorish castle with a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside.

The Moorish castle.

Both of the hostels I stayed in were big hits. In Lisbon I stayed at the Lisbon Chillout Hostel. You already know that it was awesome because I mentioned that it had a backyard with a hammock. My hostel in Porto was the the Yellow House hostel. The hostels reminded me of my hostels in Istanbul and Athens in that they were small, they had great hang-out areas, and the staff socialized with the guests a lot. They both had breakfasts that were beyond anything I expected from a hostel at this point – an unlimited supply of cereal, toast, coffee and orange juice. Having gone more than two months without cereal, which is a major part of my diet in the United States, I ate about two bowls a day.

The chillout area of the Lisbon Chillout hostel, with hammock.

One of the employees at my hostel in Porto told me that there weren’t any hostels in Portugal until a few years ago, so all the hostels there are new. Maybe that’s why both my hostels were so good – they haven’t realized that hostel guests don’t expect to get an unlimited supply of cereal with their breakfast.

On the 28th I finally said goodbye to Latin Europe. I took a flight to Paris, and from there I took a train to Bruges, my current location.

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

Cereal Analysis

Men’s Fitness magazine, which I don’t read but probably should, has published an analysis of certain cereals by a panel of experts.  The eight listed cereals are Grape Nuts Flakes, Honey Bunches of Oats with Real Strawberries, Health Valley Granola Raisin Cinnamon, Special K plus Protein, Kashi 7 Whole Grain Honey Puffs, Multi-Grain Cheerios, Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Cereal Golden Flax, and Wheaties.  The panel tried only the “major healthy brands” so most of the classic cereal brands — like Frosted Flakes or Lucky Charms — probably didn’t make the cut.

The winners?   Honey Bunches of Oats with Real Strawberries was deemed tastiest, Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Cereal Golden Flax was adjudged healthiest, and Special K with Protein was voted best overall.  I’m sorry to say that Wheaties, which was a staple of the Webner household as I was growing up because it was the Breakfast of Champions, takes a bit of a drubbing from the panel for featuring dry, gritty flakes and not much nutritional value.  Still, I would take Wheaties over the Grape Nut Flakes or the Kashi puffs any day; the latter two cereals turn into a mush almost immediately after the first splash of milk.

I am not familiar with the Ezekiel 4:9 cereal — and I have to say that “Sprouted Whole Grain Cereal Golden Flax” is a mouthful whether or not the cereal itself is — but it made me wonder precisely what the text of Ezekiel 4:9 is.  The King James version translation is:  “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentiles, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof, according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon thy side, three hundred and ninety days shalt thou eat thereof.”  Any breakfast cereal that promises you sustenance while you lie on your side for 390 days must have something to recommend it.

Full Of Promise But Disappointing, Like a Kel-Bowl-Pak

When we were kids, Mom would occasionally buy the Kellogg’s “Variety Pack” rather than a regular box of “cold cereal.” The “Variety Pack” had 8, or 10, or 12 very small boxes of different kinds of cereal. You might get Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops, and Corn Flakes, among others, in one Variety Pack, and then get All-Bran, Raisin Bran, and Froot Loops in another. The Variety Pack offered the luxury of choice and the chance to sample the newest cereal to roll off the Battle Creek assembly lines, but also offered an even more stimulating challenge — the challenge of successfully using the Kel-Bowl-Pak.

The Kel-Bowl-Pak

The Kel-Bowl-Pak

What cereal-loving child of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s did not attempt, at least once, to eat breakfast using the Kel-Bowl-Pak rather than pouring the cereal into a bowl? For the uninitiated, the Kel-Bowl-Pak was featured on every small Variety Pack box of cereal. The boxes held out the promise of deft, precision engineering, with carefully marked perforations, detailed illustrations and instructions on the side of the box, and an official, probably trademarked name — the “Kel-Bowl-Pak.” The concept was simple. The careful cereal eater was to follow the perforations and slice through the cardboard and underlying wax paper, primly fold back the cardboard and wax paper flaps like opening the double doors of the cabinets underneath the bathroom sink, and then pour milk into the exposed cereal and eat right out of the box. What could be cooler than that? You could picture rugged hikers munching cereal out of the Kel-Bowl-Pak while gazing at the sun rise over the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, the actual performance of the Kel-Bowl-Pak never seemed to live up to its promise. Inevitably, the cheap cardboard would rip under the pressure of pudgy fingers and safety scissors, or the wax paper would tear and cereal would spill everywhere. And, even if the perforations were followed and the cardboard and wax paper were opened with surgical precision, the remaining wax paper packaging would immediately leak once the milk was added, and the cereal eater would be treated to a few spoonfuls of cereal from a soggy box that left smeared milk on the kitchen table.

And so, the Kel-Bowl-Pak was full of apparent promise, but ultimately disappointing. Sometimes, life is like that.

So It Begins . . . .

According to this story, some Senators are beginning to consider ways to pay for the proposed health care plan.  My guess is that, if a health care plan passes, it will be paid for by a series of different taxes, many of which will be viewed as taxing “unhealthy” activities — like drinking the “sugary soft drinks” noted in the article.   Such taxes are in line with the “sin taxes” that are routinely imposed by governments, such as taxes on cigarettes.

We therefore may see taxes on dietary choices — like eating meat, or eating Twinkies.  As a non-vegetable eater who occasionally enjoys a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal, I’m probably in trouble.

Once you begin to tax activities, however, it is difficult to decide where to draw the line.  Is drinking a “sugary soft drink” any more risky than, say, mountain-climbing or water-skiing?  Should  taxes to raise revenues for health care programs be viewed as a kind of “user fee” designed to raise revenue from those who are most likely to use the health care programs, much like the user fees imposed on individuals who camp in national parks?

Quisp Versus Quake

As a kid I was an afficionado of breakfast cereals. I liked sugary cereals, and two of my favorites were Quisp and Quake. Both were made of the same orange-colored stuff that also was used to make Cap’n Crunch, but their consistencies were different in a critical way. Quisp, which had a space alien guy as a mascot, was a saucer shaped cereal that would quickly turn into mush when splashed with milk. When it got soggy, you could put the milk-saturated cereal on your tongue and push your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and the milk would squirt out before you swallowed. Quake, on the other hand, had some kind of miner guy as the mascot and was a rock-hard nugget — so hard that, when you ate it, the jagged edges of the cereal would lacerate the roof of your mouth and leave traces of that orange substance embedded there, where you could taste it for hours.

The debate about whether Quisp was better than Quake was unending, like the Beatles versus the Stones, or the Munsters versus the Addams Family. I preferred Quake — and the Beatles, and the Addams Family. At some point Quake was pulled from the market entirely, possibly because of the laceration factor. That was a dark day in the Webner household.

I found this Quisp and Quake ad on Youtube:

Saturday Mornings

Saturday morning is, arguably, the single finest time of the week. When we were kids, Saturday morning was the time when you would race downstairs, fill a mixing bowl with a sugary cereal, and camp in front of the TV set, sitting cross-legged in our PJs and watching cartoons for hours — always looking forward to the time when our favorite, Johnny Quest, would come on. In college, Saturday morning was the essential recuperative period after the long, late, Friday night festivities. These days, I often work on Saturday mornings, but even those times are more relaxed and enjoyable because I can play baroque music on the internet radio and am not interrupted by telephone calls.

No matter how old you are, Saturday mornings are irresistible because the school work or work week has just ended, you have no immediate obligations, and the weekend yawns before you, pristine and full of promise and possibility.

Warming Trends

The weather has turned significantly warmer the last two days. Whereas for several weeks we had a period of temperatures that, for the most part, stayed below 20 degrees, yesterday we saw the 50s and already this morning it feels like the 40s. Snow and ice are melting, and bits of green are coloring the landscape.

When we were kids, we loved the winter weather. It was cold in Akron, and we got lots of snow. Our free time was spent sledding, skating, building snow forts, having snowball fights, avoiding the neighborhood bully who was likely to put snow and ice down your snowsuit, and then getting warmed up with hot chocolate and those little marshmallows. But, we looked forward to warmer weather for at least one reason — breakfast cereal.

The rule in our household was simple and immutable: if the weather was cold, you had to eat hot cereal for breakfast. When the outside thermometer fell below 32 degrees, the fun cereals were put away and the boring, weirdly named cereals moved front and center. Instead of Sugar Frosted Flakes or Sugar Pops (and yes, in those days cereal manufacturers were not troubled by the sugar content of their offerings), we got Quakers Oatmeal, or Cocoa Wheats, or Cream of Wheat. Those choices, at least, were palatable when you spooned enough sugar or brown sugar into the mix. The truly groan-inducing choices, on the other hand, were Maypo and Malt-o-Meal. Maple flavoring only works on syrup. (If you don’t believe me, eat a maple-flavored Bun, and look carefully for maple-flavored entrees the next time you go to a fine restaurant.) And Malt-O-Meal had the worst consistency of any cereal ever — granular, yet mushy, and seemingly designed to get caught between teeth or in braces.

Malt-O-Meal was a troubling choice for another reason. The Malt-O-Meal mascot was a bird that followed the kids around after they’d had their healthy, warm breakfast on a cold winter morning, much as the ghostly Cream of Wheat bowl did, too. Our mother convinced us, that in addition to protecting us from frostbite, the Malt-O-Meal bird also would report to Santa on every one of our transgressions. If we misbehaved, she would pretend that the Malt-O-Meal bird had seen us from a nearby window and was now flying off to turn us in to Santa. So, in addition to being the mascot of a crappy, flavorless, disturbingly consistencied breakfast cereal, the Malt-O-Meal bird was a fink.