Before college, my life was littered with empty cereal bowls. This was largely the fault, and perhaps the triumph, of my mother. I ate cereal like one greedily gasps for air after running 1,000 miles per hour. Instead of lungs and air, it was cereal and stomach. Growing up, there was never any soda in our fridge; there were no trips to fast food restaurants no matter how much we pleaded; and there was nothing like candy in the house. Going out was a delicacy. Ice cream was a holiday. So I grew up devouring large quantities of cereal to make up for the sugar blackhole my mother enforced upon me.
I was so trained in the deprivation of sugar that when we went grocery shopping, I knew what kinds of cereal were off limits without even asking. Anything that was not the color of grain was out. There went Fruit Pebbles and Lucky Charms. Anything that had chocolate was out. So no Count Chocula. The edgiest I could get was Frosted Flakes or Cinnamon Toast Crunch. And that was pushing it.
There were times of experiment though. I went with Shredded Wheat, Grape Nuts, and plain Cheerios for a while. These were lauded as good choices by my mother. I can see the brag about her young son now:
“I can’t get my kid off the morning sugar fixes!”
“My son eats Grape Nuts.”
“I wish I could get kids to understand the long term benefits of grain and fiber like yours!”
Slow broad motherly smile.
But what my mother would theoretically leave out in this entirely made up conversation was the fact that I was quite liberal with the sugar. It was the loophole in the whole racket. And this made the milk at the end my favorite part. It was akin to an ice cream shake to me. I saw cereal as a dessert, which means I ate it every morning like regular kids but also sometimes after dinner.
I grew, and so did my cereal addiction. As a teenager, I would eat cereal in front of my computer, either playing Warcraft II or doing homework. My screen was splattered with white flecks of dried milk. I dare not imagine what was underneath the keys of my keyboard. I’m surprised it didn’t smell of foul milk by the time I went to college. I remember being into Chex Mix then, one of the only cereals I could find in China (where we lived when I was in high school) that went well with milk and sugar and fulfilled the health requirements of my mother.
With such a strictly treatless house, my friends’ houses became treasure troves of decadence. They’d open their closets, and I would stifle a “Wow!” vocally and visible while restraining an urge to pillage the stocks: so many Sour Patch Kids, Laffy Taffy bars, and Twizzlers to be had. Look at all these Hostess products! Oreos! My politeness, another thing my mom instilled in me, kept me from turning into a belligerent viking, taking everything and hightailing it back home.
The other foods I remember in the household were chicken noodle soup, manicotti, chili, and that’s all I can remember. I loved manicotti, but I hated chicken noodle soup. My hatred didn’t matter: I was forced to eat it. It was my father’s favorite. My mother used to make a huge batch of it, put it in ziplock bags, and then pile what seemed like 10 bags into the freezer so we could eat it for weeks, each bag neatly etched “Chicken Soup” in sharpie to differentiate it from the frozen chili bags. The chicken soup wasn’t bad, but it was the celery my mother put in it that made it awful. Celery is basically the least detrimental thing you can put in your body, which was, I assumed, partly the reason for my mother putting it in it. You burn more calories chewing it than it gives you in the long run. Celery is that healthy. If I didn’t eat chicken noodle soup, I was forced to stay at the table until I did. I remember the soup being reheated in the microwave a couple times before I finally forced down the vegetables and chicken and faintly ate the celery.
I could tell you the time she once tried to convince me to buy a pink shirt because it looked good on me — real reason: it was cheap. I could tell you the time she let me wear her old high-top gym shoes that I found in a shoe basket because I wanted to be cool — she was surprised I even wore them and was chagrined when I came home upset that my friends had snickered to me that they were women’s shoes.
I realize now that dessert was a delicacy, just like nice clothes for a kid. When we are young, we outgrow things so fast that it appeals to frugal parents to just buy things three sizes larger than your child is at the moment. I remember realizing I wasn’t actually a size 13 shoe when someone made a comment about me routinely tripping over my feet playing high school basketball. Turns out I had stopped growing at 11.5.
I’m a pretty healthy eater now. I don’t keep anything sweet in my kitchen. Not even a sugar jar. And this is significant because I’m an adult and have the purchasing power to buy any single thing in a grocery store. My mother is now the one who indulges hardcore into Graeter’s, baklava, those sorbet in fruit containers from Costco, cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory, and massive varieties of chocolate. Every Sunday, we all go to her house and eat, and there are always three different types of desserts to be had. Things have changed.
While my mother is now a slave to the Costco quantities of dessert, I am now hindered by another force: age. I can no longer devour massive quantities of fatty milks and grains and sugar. I can’t even keep the ingredients for cereal in my house anymore. I don’t trust myself. Just a month ago, I had leftover milk from a recipe I had made. I bought cereal to use up the last of the milk so as not to be wasteful. The cereal box didn’t last two nights. Gone.
So, now the only milk I have in my fridge is almond milk. It’s good. I like it in smoothies. But it doesn’t have that taste that makes me want to put it on cereal and indulge. It’s safe. I hardly even go down the cereal aisles anymore, except when coffee or the granola share the same aisle. And when I do find myself in the cereal aisle, I try not to look because nostalgia is a huge emotion for my brain. One look at Lucky Charms or even Shredded Wheat will bring back all those times I happily sat at the kitchen table, looking like Gollum, making the awful sounds of a human being eating cereal far too fast. And this restraint is exactly, I think, what my mother wanted in the end.