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Breakfast cereals are the glue that holds our civilisation together

Snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits our mortal cells.

Let us recast the riddle of the Sphinx: who snaps, crackles and pops in the morning; snaps, crackles and pops in the afternoon; and snaps, crackles and pops in the evening? Answer: me – and probably you, too, for if there’s one food that unites infancy and extreme old age, the toothless and those defanged by time-the-devourer, then it’s breakfast cereals. Indeed, to allocate these comestibles a given slot within the daily-go-round is just as spurious as confining them to any point in the human life cycle; cereals are . . . Well, there’s no other way of putting it: serial. Other foods may come and go but the great granular underlay of cereal remains. We are just as likely – arguably more so – to find ourselves standing at the kitchen counter in the middle of the night crunching down Golden Crunch as we are to be up with the lark and the iconic Kellogg’s rooster.

Yes, the snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits every single one of our mortal cells. (Memo to Self: must pitch Kellogg’s an ad campaign along these lines.) I started out eating Rice Krispies, savouring their delicious timpani as I plunged home my spoon and I dare say I shall exit this world with this same susurrus in my ears – and in between, bowl of cereal has followed bowl, as night succeeds day. Moreover, cereal being a food that comes with high sugar content, on to which you add still more, the eating of it is highly addictive, so it might be more appropriate to say bowl follows bowl as minute succeeds minute.

It’s fair enough, this serial cereal, because even more than bread, cereal returns us to the very roots of our civilisation, which lie in the amassing of food surpluses in the form of grain storage. If you like, one productive way of viewing the early despotisms of the Fertile Crescent, which arose from the domestication of einkorn and emmer wheat, hulled barley et cetera, is that these were in fact giant cereal boxes upon which the cultural plan of the future was incised in cuneiform. Archaeologists have actually discovered primitive cereal boxes at cave sites in the Zagros Mountains, although there’s considerable dispute over whether they fulfilled practical or merely ceremonial functions. For my part, I think the decipherment of an inscription on one of these rectilinear clay vessels – “Free Toy Inside!” – is pretty much a clincher.

If cereal is foundational (we have no difficulty envisioning Nebuchadnezzar tucking in to a bowl of Lucky Charms and asses’ milk), it is also ubiquitous: not simply in our diets, but also in our environment. What other foodstuff is so widespread in the domestic sphere? One moment we’re puncturing Coco Pops strewn across the lino, the next we’re crunching Cheerios into the carpet; indeed, the experience of having small children is essentially one of witnessing the merging of cereals and floor coverings into a single, semi-edible mass. But cereals don’t just lie underfoot; due to their high concentration of sugar and the addition of milk, they are the very mortar of disorder: entropy is held in check by them; a cornflake glues a mug to a table; a Golden Graham rivets a textbook to a desk; and such is the bonding strength of Weetabix that entire houses can be built using it in combination with courses of Shredded Wheat.

Then again, of what other foodstuff can it be said that its packaging really is of equal significance? When I was a child, the reading of the back of the cereal box was an integral bite of the whole munch. Frequently, in those days, new technological projects were blazoned on cereal boxes; it was from these that I first heard about the jumbo jet, the hovercraft, the Channel Tunnel and all sorts of other wonders. Cereal box copywriters were bold apostles of progress who nonetheless always managed to place their future wonders in credible time frames: as I recall, almost always in the next five to ten years. Imagine getting a box of Honey Loops from the pantry now and discovering from a screed printed on it that a high-speed railway connecting London with the northern cities will be built by 2020 – and then, lo and behold, this actually coming to pass! No wonder the 1960s and 1970s now appear a more optimistic era. Yes, there was racism, poverty and terrorism aplenty, but at least you could have faith in what was written on cereal boxes.

Some readers will no doubt be wondering when I’m going to get on to discussing the merits of individual cereals, but the answer to this is: never. Or, rather, the very supposition that one breakfast cereal can be better than another is to call attention to the elephant in the room that’s studded with raisins and dusted with whole grains and nuts. I refer, of course, to muesli – which surely deserves a column of its own. Besides, barring spurious flavourings, and shapes that are so evanescent they barely maintain their three-dimensional form long enough to make it from bowl to mouth, there is little to distinguish these slops. This is why I’ve returned to Rice Krispies time and again, although I still have absolutely no idea what riboflavin is.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage