Breakfast. Some posit that it’s the most important meal of the day. The Poms start with a fanciful shebang of eggs sunny side up and blood sausage in Old Blighty, while the Germans enjoy raw liver (I mean how German is that).
Ackee, in Jamaica, might kill you, and Vegemite on toast, our preferred concentrated yeast extract in Australia, is arguably the most bizarre delicacy listed here.
However you start your day, it’s hard to deny that the planet has no shortage of strange culinary options to sate the recently rested stomach.
But in the United States, it’s the humble bowl of cereal that has reigned supreme as the breakfast foodstuff of choice for over a century. Perhaps it’s to do with Americans’ obsession with expediency. Or just the fact that marketing has informed more Americans’ diets than it has other folks’, elsewhere.
Whatever it is, one only has to look at Jerry Seinfeld’s kitchen cabinet to note the prevalence of breakfast cereal in the American diet.
Given the current trend of intermittent fasting—that is, skipping breakfast because you want your body to burn what it’s already got in the tank first—it can’t be easy to market any cereal designed for morning enjoyment these days.
And as humans are becoming more and more aware of the dangers of eating sugar and highly processed foods, the idea of shoving a spoonful of Lucky Charms, Coco Pops, or Frosted anything into your gob first thing isn’t all that appealing a concept, especially as obesity is such a huge drain on the economy (not to mention an individual’s lifespan).
But, curiously, one of the world’s most famous breakfast cereals has never been bothered that much for the enjoyment of its consumers.
In fact, it was created with the very intention of quelling it. We’re talking, of course, about Corn Flakes.
The origin story of Corn Flakes
It was 1894 when two brothers, William and John Kellogg, were working in a sanitarium (that’s old timey speak for what we now call a mental ward).
The two were devout Seventh Day Adventists, one of the weirder of the US’ collection of zany religions at the time. As such, they promoted a strict vegetarian diet, as was (and still is today) consistent with the church’s teachings.
But John Kellogg didn’t want to stop there.
Convinced that any sort of indulgence was a pathway to further sin – to the point where patients at his mental ward were denied meat, alcohol, tea, coffee, and even tobacco – John waged war on flavour itself and decided that the only way to stop sinful behaviour was to stop any essence of enjoyment. Even in food.
The top of the Kelloggs brothers’ list of sinful behaviour was masturbation, so they set about to create food items that would discourage such personal prurience, one crunchy, uninspiring, flavourless morsel at a time.
And the method by which the two came upon Corn Flakes, the now universally enjoyed (well, tolerated) cereal, wasn’t even all that deliberate: the puritanical pair were impatiently dealing with another problem at the hospital when they left some wheat they were drying half-way through (the how, why and what of these details is conveniently left out of any retellings of this tale, yet we can assume that whatever they were intending to make was somehow less appetising than what we now know to be Corn Flakes).
Upon their return, the now dried wheat was too far gone, but they tried to roll it into a dough anyway. Long story short, what came out was (very obviously) not dough, but small, dried flakes, which they served to their patients nonetheless, given the strict budgets to which they were ostensibly forced to adhere.
They patented the method (naming the flakes “granose”) and started to experiment with other cereals and grains, before deciding that the best of the bunch was corn.
Interestingly, the bid to end masturbation in the asylum might not be the strangest part of this story. Will Kellogg decided to take his product, which was by now manufactured by the pair’s “Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company,” to the big leagues.
In 1906, he added sugar to the recipe—a scandalous move that would see his brother John become most perturbed. But Will had dollar signs in his eyes, and the desire to turn his healthy golden flakes into a golden opportunity was greater than his desire to maintain a healthy relationship with his financially unadventurous brother.
The viral marketing of Kellogg's
In 1907, Kellogg’s ran an ad campaign offering a free box of Corn Flakes to any woman who winked at her grocer. How far the pious William Kellogg had strayed from the sworn mission of ending self-pleasure once and for all.
Where (or perhaps when) this story comes full circle, however, is in 1957, when the brand adopted its instantly recognisable mascot, Cornelius “Corny” Rooster, a suggestion from Welsh harpist Nansi Richards, a proponent of her native language. Her logic was steeped in the pronunciation of the Welsh word for rooster: “ceiliog” (pronounced kayleeog, or in some dialects kaylog—or who honestly knows, it’s Welsh after all).
The similarity between “ceiliog” and Kellogg was enough for the marketing team, and that, friends, is how a cereal that was originally produced with the intention of stopping men from choking the chicken ended up with a giant cock on the front of its box.
There are plenty of products out there that were stumbled upon by accident, repurposed for a better fit, and designed with a strange goal in mind. The chainsaw, for example, was originally made to cut womens’ pubic bones during difficult cases of childbirth. Listerine was a floor cleaner (amongst other things), Play-Doh was a wall cleaner and the Frisbee was a mere pie tin.
But few, if any, can claim the same level of sheer weirdness as the story of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
The company, still located in Battle Creek Michigan, is now traded on the New York Stock Exchange, with annual revenues of over USD$10 billion. Their product range is so famous it would be a foolish waste of words to list here, and the company holds Royal Warrants from both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.
But through years of economic expansion, product development, and business-minded decision-making, as well as some undeniably generous philanthropic endeavours (Will Kellogg donated vast amounts of his fortune to various charitable causes before his death in 1951), one thing can’t be forgotten about the Kelloggs story of success.
That is, the entire company was loosely founded on the whacky belief that if blokes ate food that tasted like nothing, they would stop tugging it.
And in that mission, they undeniably, and thankfully, failed.