Growing up, my parents tried to get us to eat fairly healthily. Most forms of junk food were allowed only in moderation—on holidays or when purchased with our own personal money. I invested my entire childhood allowance on candy and doughnuts. Not necessarily a wise fiscal strategy, but at the time, I thought the return on investment was great.
But there were certain food items that were outright banned from our household. We weren’t ever allowed to eat white bread, soda, or sugary kids’ cereals. In hindsight, I get it. No one has ever found any redeeming nutritional value in those particular foodstuffs. But circa 1980, all I knew was that this rule made me and my brother and sister deprived freaks in the cafeteria, the only kids washing down Roman Meal with milk amongst a sea of humanity feasting happily on white bread and Kool-Aid.
Then something magical burst onto the cereal scene: a presweetened cereal that managed to straddle the line between healthy and hell-no so artfully that my mom allowed us to buy it: Honey Nut Cheerios. It became my favorite childhood cereal, sustaining me and bringing me untold happiness for many years.
Then I grew up and moved out and could do whatever I wanted, and for a time, that included buying every disgusting, delicious type of cereal that exists. I discovered the drugs I’d been missing all those years with Frosted Flakes, Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Fruit Loops—mere gateways to the newer, harder children’s cereals like Cookie Crisp, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Reese’s Puffs.
It got bad. I hit bottom in my late 20s, when I’d mix multiple sugary cereals together like any cross-addicted junkie and eat these concoctions for breakfast, dessert, late night snacks, and yes, sometimes even for supper.
I took stock of myself, put things ever so slightly in check, and went back to the only-moderately-terrible cereals of my childhood—Frosted Mini Wheats, granola, Honey Nut Cheerios. Probably not too much healthier than the more brightly colored, cartoon festooned varieties, but at least a little less embarrassing in the checkout line. I never ventured to the dark side of pure healthiness with, say, Fiber One or Grape Nuts. I figured that’s what my 50s would be for. For now, moderation would be enough of a step in the right direction.
Then came my mid-30s and celiac disease diagnosis. I recall the dark days of 2008 when I took my 5-page printout of obscure, potentially deadly ingredients that contain or might contain gluten, scoured the cereal aisle reading the label of everything that seemed wheat-free, and came up empty handed, finding not one single cereal without wheat or some type of barley malt (it never occurred to me to check Fruity Pebbles, which I believe has always been gluten-free, so let us take a moment to mourn that missed opportunity and savor that bit of dramatic irony).
Then there was that day a year or so later when I glanced up in the grocery store and saw an end cap display with Rice Chex and Corn Chex with their new “Now Gluten-Free!” labels. I couldn’t believe it. I heard a chorus of angels sing. I cried tears of joy right there in the middle of Wal-Mart over no longer having to eat a scrambled egg for breakfast every single day. General Mills, my cholesterol levels are forever in your debt.
Flash forward to last Sunday morning, visiting my dad and stepmom. I was chagrined and saddened by the fact that, while I breakfasted on Chex per usual, my husband was enjoying my old favorite—Honey Nut Cheerios. I did what I usually do in these situations—I sniffed his food and I asked him to describe how it tasted. That sounds a little creepy when I write it down, but, hey, it’s my celiac coping mechanism and the pitifully diminished way I have to enjoy gluten now. I felt that all-too-familiar sad twinge of deprivation, but I was also happy that at least someone in the world can still enjoy such deliciousness.
We got home to an empty fridge on Monday, so off to the grocery store we went. I headed down the cereal aisle seeking the somewhat new gluten-free Chex granola (which is fabulous). I didn’t find it and sadly realized they may only sell it at Target.
But this is what I did find.
They deglutenized my Honey Nut Cheerios!
My heart raced. I looked at the people around me wondering how they could all remain so calm. Not a single person was doing cartwheels or singing songs of praise or hugging the box and crying, so I contained my very powerful urge to do all three of those things. I didn’t open the box right then and there, but I was tempted.
We got home and I had a little victory dance.
But then all of a sudden I realized that a small part of me was afraid to take a taste.
You know how certain foods from your past have this nostalgic power over you, and you build them up in your head, but then you taste them again and it’s just kind of meh, and you question your taste buds and your memory, and you are utterly disillusioned with life, and you wonder whether anything you remember as good and pure and lovely was ever really worth a damn at all?
That did not happen.
Honey Nut Cheerios are still sweet, nutty, oaty, crispy perfect little circles of bliss that take you back to a simpler time when your parents were there to save you from yourself, and the ice caps were still frozen, and none of your poor life choices had been made yet, and you had a giant sparkling swath of time and possibility unfurled in front of you where anything could happen, and “anything” meant only the good things from your best dreams, not all those shitty things that actually were out there in the real world waiting to pounce.
Today, I am reborn in the power and glory of those honey nutty Os. Today, for the first time in I don’t know how many years, I ate a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios.
Stand back, world, because if I can do that, I can do anything.