In my first novel, Aaron Tucker–my doppleganger of a hero, who has my job, my height (or lack thereof), my geographical location and an approximation of my family–sits down for a late-night snack with his wife one night, and he has a bowl of cereal.
For some reason, people seem to think that’s strange. I’ve gotten comments from readers who think cereal is something that is only meant to be eaten in the morning (“they call it breakfast cereal, don’t they?”), and at no other time. I find that odd, personally. There is nothing better to eat at night than a good bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios. If you read the numbers the right way, it can even lower your cholesterol. They tell me.
The trick, really, is to choose the proper cereal to eat at night. Anything with tons of fiber–that is, anything with the word “bran” in the name–is a risky choice. Go ahead if you must, but don’t blame me if you don’t sleep through the night.
On the other hand, a snack is meant to be frivolous. The inventor of the late-night snack, whom some people assume to be Dagwood Bumstead, but they’re wrong, had a few simple rules in mind:
1. This must not be something that can be classified as “real food.” Having a T-bone steak is a meal, and I don’t care if you’ve already eaten eight times today. Sure, things with meat in them are snacks, as long as you happen to be a German Shepherd. And by that, I do not mean a man from Munich who herds sheep. So watch yourself.
2. A late-night snack has to be something that can be eaten while watching television. It doesn’t matter if you’re planning on watching television or not on any given night, the snack has to be adaptable to that possibility. Just in case you suddenly decide to clean out your TiVo “Now Playing” list, or check out Turner Classic Movies’ revival of the Dick Cavett interview with… well, what does it matter who he’s interviewing, it’s all going to be about Dick anyway. So you have to have a snack that’s portable. This lets out those who might decide to eat an entire lobster after midnight, or anyone whose idea of a nightcap is a belgian waffle. Stick with small stuff.
3. Your snack should definitely feel like a guilty pleasure. There’s no point in sitting down after dinner and having yourself a salad. Sure, you’ll feel virtuous after you’re finished, but what the heck was the point of that? If you want to feel virtuous while having a snack, eat cereal while reading the Bible. The effect is the same, and you get a satisfying crunch.
4. Anything even vying to be called a late-night snack must include sugar. Yes, too much might keep you awake–if you’re a hyperactive three-year-old–but if you’re going to sit down at night and have something savory or smoky, what the heck did you have for dinner tonight? A package of Yodels?
What possible food group could suit all these criteria? Let’s think: what’s the guiltiest pleasure in the supermarket? Where can you find boxes painted in bright primary colors that remind you of the toy store when you were a child? What, in short, makes you feel like a little kid again?
It ain’t flounder, I’ll tell you that.
Now, you know some contrary wiseguys are going to say, “wait, what about ice cream?” And they’ll do that because they’re contrary wiseguys. They already know that ice cream is going to make your stomach growl the moment you lie down, and that you’ll be up an hour later with a case of acid reflux that would light up the city of Indianapolis. They know, too, that ice cream–in particular the slow-churned Edy’s light kind–is what you should eat (in moderation, health police) immediately after dinner, to make sure your palate is anything but cleansed, and to provide the daily adult allowance of slow-churned-edness recommended by the United States Government, a body that clearly knows what’s good for you better than you do. Just ask them.
No, in order to truly regress to your inner seven-year-old, you have to take a nice leisurely walk down the cereal aisle. It is truly a place of wonder. For some reason, the only brands aimed at adults are the ones you’d never want to eat in your life, and the good stuff is marketed directly at children. Don’t let that bother you. Walk up with your head held high and grab that box of Cap’n Crunch (I prefer without Crunch Berries, but to each his own), then walk away before the principal of your child’s school comes by (but then… what’s she doing by the Cap’n Crunch, anyway? Hmmm?).
If you haven’t actually allowed yourself a trip down the aisle of childhood dreams lately, let me give you a few tips:
First, all the cereals you loved as a child are still there. Some of them are called different things because cereal companies have decided that parents (again, cereals are mistakenly assumed to be purchased strictly for the under-12 set) are going to avoid feeding their children anything enjoyable. So “Sugar Pops” have become “Corn Pops” (they taste exactly the same) and “Sugar Crisp” has become “Golden Crisp,” which makes even less sense. What kind of food is a “golden?”
Try to avoid anything that didn’t used to have marshmallows and now does. Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal of marshmallows in cereal if the cereal is any good at all. Marshmallows do add a rather interesting foam rubber-like texture, if that’s your idea of a good time. On the other hand, if you grew up a Count Chocula fan, don’t let me stop you. Everyone’s favorite marshmallow cocoa vampire is still there, waiting for some help. Frankenberry, on the other hand, seems to have gone the route of Quake, who used to hang out with Quisp. You can still occasionally find Quisp (the space alien cereal that was simply made out of sugar, as far as I can tell) on the more nostalgia-minded shelves, but he seems lonely, somehow, without his pal by his side. It’s a little sad.
Side note: they’ve taken all the sugar out of Alpha Bits. This gives the cereal the distinction of tasting like nothing. Who thought that was a good idea? Did the company really think we were buying that stuff because it looked like letters?
Long-standing favorites like Cocoa Puffs (try to find the ones without marshmallows; they’re still around) and Cocoa Krispies have been joined by cereals that have no business including chocolate, but do anyway. For a while, there were cereals that looked like glazed donuts, chocolate chip cookies, and for all I know, ice cream cones. I say, stick with the classics.
Which brings me to the easiest bet in the cereal aisle: Cheerios. There are now about six hundred varieties of Cheerios (including new “Fruity Cheerios,” a name on which I will not comment, but I guarantee you they taste exactly like Froot Loops), and you can’t go wrong with a one of them. Even the sickening sounding “Yogurt Cheerios” are good.
I’ve been told, although I can’t confirm it, that a box of Cheerios (the original variety) contains more salt than a bag of potato chips. I say, bring it on. With or without milk, in a bowl or out of the box (something you can’t do with, say, Honey Bunches of Oats, a good cereal with a really terrible name), Cheerios provide all you want from a cereal: a crunch, a strong flavor, the ability to float nicely in milk without requiring a magnetic spoon to get the last few, and the immediate desire to eat more. A perfect cereal experience.
I’m mostly a Honey Nut Cheerios fan, but any variety will do. Regular, apple cinnamon, frosted, fruity, you name it, if it’s a little tiny bagel made of oats, I’m all over it.
If you’re reading this late at night, and doing so has at all given you a craving for a certain type of food product, my work here is done. Grab a bowl, get the milk out of the fridge, select your spoon and have at it, I say.
And don’t worry what people will say about you. If they were honest with themselves, they’d be one bowl over.