In a previous post, I offered a short excerpt from chapter 2, “Losing My Religion.” Here’s a bit from chapter 1, “Our Father,” about childhood years in Minnesota.
Seen from the inside out, my life seems to have originated from nothing, just the way Genesis says God created the heavens and earth. But if some scientists are right after all and life arose from some primal chemical soup or substance left to simmer after the Big Bang, then I know what my own primal substance was. It was Cream of Wheat, slow-cooked of a winter morning in Deephaven, Minnesota.
Children born in the twenty-first century may never taste what was once an American institution, a hot cereal with the consistency of carrot purée and the color of a communion wafer. One of the first mass-advertised breakfast foods—promoted in a collectible series of folksy ads, some painted by N. C. Wyeth—Cream of Wheat was a morning staple eaten by the majority of Americans who were children between the Great War and the Space Age. I have never met a baby-boomer who didn’t taste it.
Cream of Wheat was a healthy product and an honest one. Company lore held that an impoverished man had survived the Great Depression on Cream of Wheat and bananas, and the man wrote a letter about the experience, which my grandfather kept in his desk. The smell of a pot of this pure white porridge bubbling on my mother’s porcelain-top stove was always more appetizing to me than the pale cereal itself, which was tasteless to a boy’s palate until you added brown sugar and raisins. In those cholesterol-unconscious days, the smell of Cream of Wheat portended bacon, eggs, and buttered toast spread thick with homemade jam spooned out of Mason jars.
As children of the president of the Cream of Wheat Company, we little Bulls were enlisted as taste-testers of food-lab versions of Quick and Instant Cream of Wheat, as well as chemically sweetened varieties designed to compete with poisonous alternatives like Maypo. We learned to pronounce contemptuously the names of competing products, including Quaker Oats and Malt-O-Meal. We remained loyal to Cream of Wheat despite the lumps. The slow cooking was seldom slow enough, until Quick and Instant were perfected. Still, there was no shame in being an heir to the Cream of Wheat dynasty, not when my fourth-grade class from the Blake School took a field trip to the plant in Minneapolis. I proudly led the way. Each of us wore a disposable paper baker’s hat and received sample packs of Quick, Instant, and Original, all printed right there in that very same plant with the friendly well-traveled face of an African American chef.
The Cream of Wheat Company was founded by my great-grandfather George Bull and some business partners in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1893. The recipe is credited to an itinerant laborer on Great-Granddaddy’s farm, who began messing about with wheat middlings and came up with a porridge that proved to be the only thing a North Dakota farmer could sell his New York broker during a national financial panic. As such, it was the fuel of a small family legacy, which sent my father and his older brother to Yale and purchased a pair of large homes for my grandparents, the city house on East Lake of the Isles and the summer house on Lake Minnetonka.
There’s a classic picture of my father on the lawn of that summer house. About six years old, he is leaning against a tree in the afternoon shade, dressed in Stetson hat, chaps, cowboy boots, and a gun belt lined with fake bullets and hung with a pair of toy six-shooters. What’s incongruous about the outfit is that Dad is also wearing a freshly pressed white long-sleeve dress shirt and striped necktie. With one thumb hooked manfully in his gun belt and his other hand laid awkwardly on his thigh, as if he had been told to put it there, Dad looks both cute and puzzled. One suspects the devilry of Grandma Bull, who raised my father to be the best-dressed boy at Blake. Dad liked this picture of himself. When he threw himself a 75th birthday party in 2000, the invitation he sent out was printed with Cowboy Dave.
For all anyone could tell in the years after the war, my dad was his mother and father’s only son, but in sad fact he was the sole survivor of three boys. . . .