Before There Was Cereal There Was Cerealine

Should you happen to have found yourself breakfasting at the Imperial Hotel in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1898, or the Colonial Hotel in Cleveland in 1900, or aboard the U.S.M.S. St. Paul in 1901, well, lucky you. Alongside the standard tripe, liver, chops, mackerel, Saratoga or Lyonnaise potatoes, and eggs, you would have noticed that Cerealine was an option—and it was hell-bent on saving your health. 

According to food historian Harvey Levenstein’s The New England Kitchen and the Origins of Modern Kitchen Habits, “scientific eating” was the prevailing (if somewhat misguided) nutritional theory at the turn of the 20th century. This movement was driven by post-Sylvester Graham diet reformers like Wesleyan University’s W.O. Atwater, who by the mid 1880s was convinced that America’s wasteful and dangerous patterns of food consumption would result in the moral, physical, and intellectual degradation of society. Convinced by lab studies that showed very little difference in the way that cheap or expensive carbohydrates, fats, and proteins were metabolized by the body, Atwater made it his mission to education—and chastise—people of lesser means for spending too much of their money on food when they could be getting the same nutrition more cheaply. 

Edward Atkinson, a Boston businessman heavily invested in improving the living standards and productivity of American workers, took up Atwater’s cause. The two men found more collaborators in Mary Abel and Ellen Richards, who espoused the idea of teaching these principles of home economics at public kitchens in New England. The movement floundered spectacularly with its supposed target audience—the poor—who were set in their foodways (Atkinson called their habits “depraved,” which, harsh), so Atwater and company set their sights a higher social rung. They found like-minded people in the Department of Agriculture and at universities who were willing to help them spread their “science-based” approach to nutrition via classroom programs and government-distributed pamphlets.

This was the perfect stage upon which Cerealine could enter the market. An Indiana man named Joseph Gent patented machinery and processes to mass-produce flaked Indian corn, based on a discovery by mill worker James Vannoy where close contact between the rollers forced the corn to come out in flakes. (When Vannoy told Gent about his discovery, he was to he was neglecting his duties and to get back to work. Gent later applied for the patent himself.) By 1880, Gaff, Gent, & Thomas Co. set up shop in Columbus, Indiana, to make Cerealine Flakes. According to their marketing materials, they were “made from pure white Maize, contains, by the exactest chemical analysis, more actual nourishment than any other preparation of the cereals, and this nourishment is, by the exactest test, more digestible than that of any other farinaceous food known.” This precursor to cold breakfast cereals was soluble in liquids, meaning that it was especially appealing to home cooks seeking a quick meal solution. And the Cerealine patent also explained its benefits to the malt liquor brewing industry. 

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes wouldn’t appear on the consumer market until 1906, but in 1893, Mrs. E. E. Kellogg, who had served as overseer of the Sanitarium and the Sanitarium Hospital at Battle Creek, wrote a book called Science in the Kitchen. This “scientific treaty” on “cookery as related to health” made over two dozen references to Cerealine Flakes, and described the cooking process: “Into one measure of boiling liquid stir an equal measure of cerealine flakes, and cook in a double boiler from one half to three fourths of an hour.” 

This suggests a texture more akin to porridge than the stays-crunchy-in-milk varieties that are bog-standard on modern breakfast tables, but Cerealine wasn’t necessarily marketed with an eye toward pleasure; the focus was on health and value, according to the food doctrine of the time. One print ad touted Cerealine Flakes’ “true food value” at 100, oatmeal at 59, rice at 45, and so on. Children, the ad claimed, would thrive. 

A New Cook Book for Cerealine Flakes published in 1888 noted that, “This Cook Book contains a Few Selected Recipes for the Use of Cerealine Flakes. They Will Be Found Economical and Palatable” and included recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. An 1890 ad from Harper’s magazine claimed: “Packages of Cerealine Flakes at twenty cents each may be used until there is not left in them one flake. Dishes of it may be made after the family is seated at the breakfast. If more is wanted it can be prepared at once. If too much is served, it can be added to flour in making bread. And so in all the hundreds of ways in which Cerealine Flakes may be prepared, there is constant economy in its use.” Another crowed that “costing twenty cents, a cook in a private family of six persons, made puddings five times, waffles twice, muffins three times,  griddle-cakes fives times.” 

Cerealine moved its milling production from Columbus to Indianapolis in 1892 to benefit from lower freight costs, then joined forces with nine other mills to form the American Hominy Co. in 1902. By 1924, the company was bankrupt and Cerealine production had ceased some years prior, but its memory lives on in the form of message board threads, Cerealine trading cards, and hotel and cruise ship menus archived for those possessing a healthy obsession with breakfast history.

This story originally appeared on Extra Crispy.

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