I’ve always been attracted to random stuff at stores. When I was a kid, for instance, I liked to walk down the “aisle of forgotten toys” at Toys R Us. In fact, I even had a few of the random-assed action figures found in that aisle or at places like Odd Lot. The obscurity of those things was kind of alluring – they were products that weren’t as cool or popular as the G.I. Joe figures that were selling out in droves, so they were more or less buried in the store (which, in a way, probably explains why I created this blog). As I got older, I saw the same thing with books, albums, and movies, which led to some purchases that were pretty awesome and others that wound up explaining why said item had been left for retail dead.
I never thought the same could be said for food, however. Food, in general, has an expiration date, so I would be less likely to find a three-year-old jar of peanut butter on a store shelf (although I am sure they probably have some at South of the Border) than, say, leftover Spider-Man 3 toys. Still, there are always some foods in a supermarket that never seem to exist anywhere else, as if they were brought here through an interdimensional portal or something.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with cereal. Stroll down your average cereal aisle and you’ll see a variety of products you never knew existed–bagged cereals, oddly named generic cereals, laxative cereals, King Vitaman–and while most of them won’t even garner a second glance, there is sure to be one that jumps out at you.
For my wife and I, this was the case with CoCo Wheats. A chocolate-flavored farina cereal, we first encountered it at a Kroger in Charlottesville back in 2004 or 2005. I can’t remember if we bought a box the first time we saw them or if our first time came later, but somewhere along the line in our search for a breakfast food that wasn’t the same boring box of Cheerios, we decidd that we had to have them. Thankfully, we were not disappointed upon trying them for the first time; in fact, they’ve been a welcome addition to our breakfast table ever since.
Okay, I read that last sentence and realize it sounds like every crappy commercial ever. Sorry.
Anyway, two things that I found particular about CoCo Wheats were that for a cereal that kind of seems obscure, it has a pretty rich history; and the actual process of cooking CoCo Wheats is nothing short of a chemistry experiment.
Now let me qualify the latter by saying that it seems like a chemistry experiment for me because while I am a halfway decent cook (read: I know how to not burn a pizza), I have been repetedly stympied by any food in a box whose directions involve the boiling of water or heating of milk followed by the incorporation of a mix. For instance, it was only a couple of years ago that I finally figured out how to properly make macaroni and cheese using the old-school powdered cheese packet method (usually I buy the kind with the pre-made sauce packet, and even I screw that up sometimes). Shit, I can’t even make a simple bowl of Potato Buds without making it look like a bomb went off in the kitchen.
So while your average child probably could put a bowl of CoCo Wheats together, whenever I make it I find myself measuring exactly how much I need and following the instructions on the back of the box to the letter. Part of the reason for this is my obvious ineptitude, but part of it comes from the fact that farina cereals tend to be very tricky if you don’t measure out your ingredients. Too much water makes them runny and compensating for this can mean that you end up with lumps; too little water means that you wind up adding milk and that can lead to enough adding of milk and cereal that you wind up with an entire extra serving in the pot if you’re not careful.
But following the instructions as they are written, especially the part where it says to let the CoCo Wheats sit for a while before serving them, usually gets you a nice, creamy, chocolatey hot cereal. One, by the way, that will inevitably burn the crap out of your mouth and digestive tract. Cream of Wheat or oatmeal can do this too, of course, if you eat it while it’s still too hot, but when CoCo Wheats cool, they form a top layer that’s a lot like a pudding skin. It’s not hard to break up that skin–stir the wheats around for a little while and you’ll see it disappear–but the problem is that underneath that is something so nuclear hot you are guaranteed to get that always-pleasant “It burns on the way down” feeling if you eat it without letting it sit some more. Every time I’ve made them, I found myself adding even more milk and then just giving up and gulping it down–no pain, no gain, right?
Apprently not, by the way. My wife informs me that if you add two ice cubes to a bowl of CoCo Wheats, they not only cool down the cereal, but thin it out so that you are not eating chocolate sludge. So yes, once again the solution to a problem that involves boiling water and putting in a grain or powder is one that is very “Well … DUH!”
As for the history of the product, CoCo Wheats was created in 1930 by Little Crow foods, the company that would manufacture it for the next 82 years. Apparently, the original name for the cereal was “Little Crow Wheat Cereal, Cocoa Coated” (which doesn’t exactly roll off the tonuge) and then was renamed “CoCo Wheats” in 1933. As best as I can tell, Little Crow Foods began as a small company in Indiana and more or less stayed that way until a couple of weeks ago, where according to a press release on the Little Crow website, the company was bought out and the CoCo Wheats brand was purchased by Mom Brands, which is the company that makes another famous hot cereal–Malt-O-Meal (what is kind of funny is that the press release from Little Crow mentions God several times and Mom Brands, while still family owned, got its startup capital in 1919 from $900 worth of poker winnings).
The rest of the company’s products, which are various muffin mixes, pancake mixes, and coatings/seasonings for frying, have been sold to the Glister-Mary Lee Corporation and the actual Little Crow Building–which has a giant CoCo Wheats box on the roof–is now up for sale. If I were still in college, I would totally be plotting how to swipe the giant CoCo Wheats box.
I am sure the product will live on, however, because you can’t do away with a hot cereal that basically tastes like a box of Whoppers and has its own T-shirt as well as epic commercials like this: