If America eats its young, what do America’s young eat?
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2012 marks the 50th anniversary of a definitively American culinary invention. For your entertainment, I decided to whip up a batch of it myself — though I’m gonna run my mouth a while before I get to that, so bear with me.
I’m not sure exactly when the magic moment of this dish’s creation took place. The specific date of the anniversary is more than likely behind us.
No matter. A visionary deserves tribute at any time. And John Holahan was, in his own way, a visionary.
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Holahan worked as a product developer for General Mills in the 1960s, according to lore so often repeated that it might be true.
In the fateful year of 1962 — or, as I prefer to think of it, MCMLXII — the breakfast giant challenged its product developers to find a new twist on its core brands, Wheaties and Cheerios.
Legend says Holahan was looking for something to sex up his Cheerios when a bag of marshmallow circus peanuts caught his eye.
(God only knows how American breakfasts would be different today if he’d turned his attention to dill pickle chips, or canned hominy, or leftover crab rangoon.)
Holahan sliced the marshmallows into his Cheerios, liked what he tasted, and brought the idea in to work.
The immediate result was Lucky Charms, the first-ever cereal with marshmallows, released either in 1963 or ’64 depending on who you ask, and still in production today.
By extension, we also have Holahan to thank for Count Chocula, Boo-Berry, Franken-Berry, Fruit Brute, Fruity Yummy Mummy and Marshmallow Mateys, as well as the store-brand marshmallow cereal available in a grocery near you.
He was the J. Robert Oppenheimer of the cereal aisle, in so many words — a genius whose brainstorm brought clouds of devastation trailing behind it.
“I am become Lucky the Leprechaun, the destroyer of worlds.”
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That last is a cheap shot of titanic proportions, of course.
John Holahan — who died in 2000 — didn’t invent America’s trash-food culture.
He didn’t create supersize fries, wading pool-sized fountain drinks or deep-fried Twinkies. (Heck, he didn’t even create sugary cereal. Frosted Flakes were on the market a dozen years before Lucky Charms.)
He didn’t chase grocery stores out of center cities, making fast food the only affordable, accessible dining choice for those living there.
And yet, there is something about his invention that seems to define and encapsulate trash food like few other items do. (The Big Mac is another shining example. Macaroni and cheese in a box is a third.)
With its blithe interpolation of candy and breakfast, marshmallow cereal embodies the overly permissive and self-indulgent side of the American character.
Is one meal a day without sweets too much for you to take? Lucky the Leprechaun is there for you, bubsy. Sure, there’s oatmeal in the cupboard … but that’s so bland. G’wan. You deserve it. It’s cereal. There’s oats in it, fer crissake. Vitamins, too. It’s healthy enough.
There is little good to be said about marshmallow cereal — especially since they dumped Cheerios and began using frosted, unnaturally colored grain-bits to accompany the marshmallows.
But there it’s been, for almost 50 years now, offering us a treat we do not really deserve, and an escape that takes us nowhere.
Perhaps Lucky Charms has been so successful because it hit on the perfect mascot — a mythical creature who, in all these centuries, has yet to deliver genuine joy or treasure to any human.
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As I thought about the long shadow of John Holahan, I decided the natural next step was to make a batch of marshmallow cereal, original gangsta-style, and try to recapture what he might have thought when he first came up with it.
After work I detoured to Giant and picked up the necessary ingredients:
The whole thing came together in no more than a minute — pour, cut, sprinkle, drizzle with milk and serve.
I thought about slicing the circus peanut into hearts, or shamrocks, or coronets. But I figured John Holahan probably hadn’t resorted to that kind of silliness the first time. So I didn’t either.
One bite soon followed another. And I had to come around to admit: Marshmallow cereal prepared in the original style is — gack — actually pretty good.
The sweet chewiness of the peanut shards nicely offsets the dry, austere crunch of the Cheerios.
And one marshmallow bit per spoonful — not the four or five you might get in, say, Franken-Berry — is just right for contrast.
The call of marshmallow cereal is a seductive one. And when you’ve got a good ratio of Cheerios to circus-peanut bits, it’s easy to try to convince yourself that you’re still on the right side of nutrition.
Perhaps John Holahan thought that way 50 years ago. Maybe his original batch had the same restrained appeal. Perhaps he had no premonition at all about today’s sugar-bloated marshmallow-industrial complex.
Sometimes the bitterest outcomes start with the simplest, sweetest visions.