Sometimes, if a movie or television show wants to communicate how unusual a character is, they’ll depict them pouring a box of cereal into a bowl and then adding some kind of disgusting liquid—orange juice, water, coffee, possibly alcohol. This is an easy way to illustrate someone's eccentricity because everyone knows only milk goes in cold cereal. With no exceptions. Even warm milk, which a small number of individuals enjoy, has to be more palatable than the alternatives.
But is milk the acceptable choice for cereal because it’s the best, or because of something else? Is there a reason we don’t simply drown Frosted Flakes in water and call it a day?
The state of our cereal bowls can be traced to the origins of cereal itself. Back in the mid-1800s, Americans were enjoying very hearty breakfasts of bacon, eggs, meat, and other foods that could easily show up on their dinner plates. Many complained of gastrointestinal upset, a condition that health experts (many of them self-appointed) began to refer to as dyspepsia. This ill-defined malady was thought to be the result of consuming massive meals in the morning. Advocates argued that breakfast should be lighter and healthier, comprised of what they considered simple and easily digestible foods.
One such proselytizer was James Caleb Jackson, a vegetarian who ran a sanitarium called Our Home on the Hillside in Dansville, New York. At the time, sanitariums for health were considered retreats and a way to adopt healthier eating and exercise habits. Jackson was a follower of Reverend Sylvester Graham, the inventor of graham crackers and a man who believed the crackers could help curb sexual appetites that flamed in the meat-eating population. In the 1870s, Jackson began to market a product he called granula—graham flour that was baked, crumbled, and baked a second time. The tiny pebbles of flour were hearty and filling.
There’s some debate over whether it was Jackson or his mother, Lucretia, who actually came up with granula. In her son’s newsletters dating back to 1867, Lucretia published recipes for what amounted to the same thing. But whichever Jackson came up with it, there was a problem: Eaten dry, the granula was like trying to swallow construction rubble. In the newsletter, Lucretia cautioned that the cereal had to be soaked in milk or warm water, presumably to make it palatable. Other accounts of granula have consumers soaking it in milk overnight in order to make it chewable. People sometimes referred to it as “wheat rocks.”
Granula developed a following, but it wasn’t until another sanitarium owner named John Harvey Kellogg mimicked the recipe that it truly caught on. Kellogg, who owned the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, offered granula for its purported health benefits but referred to it as granola to avoid any legal entanglements with Jackson. By 1889, Kellogg was selling two tons of granola a week. By 1903, more than 100 cereal companies were operating out of Battle Creek. Kellogg, of course, became famous for his far more appealing Corn Flakes (which he invented because he thought they would curb masturbation).
Even as cereal became more processed and softer, the tendency to soak it in milk never left the public consciousness. Milk was the perfect way to add moisture to the dry food without turning it into a completely soggy mess. Like cereal, milk was also synonymous with health, full of vitamins and calcium. In a 1922 newspaper ad for Corn Flakes, Kellogg’s exhorted the wonders of the combination, offering that:
“With cold milk and luscious fresh fruit, Kellogg’s are extra delightful—so crisp, and appetizing.”
One scientific study published in the Journal of Food Science in 2011 even found that the fat in milk attached itself to the surface of cereal, helping to ward off moisture and keep cereal crunchier for longer than if it were immersed in water.
Of course, milk is no longer required to soften the bricks Lucretia and John Jackson were peddling. Culturally, we’re still predisposed to keeping milk and cereal part of a two-hand breakfast option. Had Lucretia advocated for coffee, orange juice, or something else, things might have turned out differently. And much soggier.