Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Because I Want Original Cream of Wheat, Not Quick or Instant

My great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Cream of Wheat Company, which began in the midst of an economic depression in 1892. George Bull was a wheat farmer in Grand Forks, ND, who used some old milling equipment to create a form of porridge from refined middlings, the best part of the wheat. He sent a case of the stuff stamped “Cream of Wheat” to his broker in New York along with a carload of wheat, and the agent wired back:

“Forget wheat. Can’t sell. Send carload Cream of Wheat.” An American brand was born.

When I was a child outside Minneapolis–St. Paul, my dad was vice-president, then president of Cream of Wheat, following in the footsteps of his own father and grandfather. (The company had long since moved to this milling center on the Mississippi.) As son of an officer of the company, I had to eat a lot of Cream of Wheat, lumps and all. I also served as an unofficial beta tester of Quick and Instant and even some weirdly flavored experimental varieties of Cream of Wheat, as the firm struggled to expand its product line and escape its fate as a one-trick pony. It never did so. In 1961, CW was sold to Nabisco and we followed Dad’s career to the New York area.

Sticking to my ribs today is not only the residue of a carload of Cream of Wheat swallowed in childhood but also a conviction that there are things that are more real than others, more original, closer to the source: “original Cream of Wheat,” from the heart of the grain.

This helps explain why I am a Catholic today.

This weekend, on vacation up country, I had a chance to attend two church services in succession: Catholic mass celebrated by a priest followed by an ecumenical Protestant-ish service led by a barefoot minister.

Let me be fair: The pastor in question is the soul of kindness, compassion, and ecumenism. She talked at length of the accidental burning of a religious building in a nearby town, and urged our prayers. She gathered six children into her lap and shared her love and kindness, with a bit of old time religion. She chose her own reading, from Revelation, which did not mention Jesus, and developed the theme beautifully in a fifteen-minute sermon that had everyone nodding their heads and mmm-mmming along. It was a moving community experience and occasionally powerful theater.

It was also a pale shadow of something else, something original, something we know as the liturgy. There was a cross without corpus on the table, a table that filled in for an altar, where the bread, wine, and grape juice were laid out for a symbolic “communion.” Behind the table stood the choir and behind the choir was a mural of a mountain scene. On the surrounding walls was not one image or symbol of Christian worship. At one point (can’t say exactly when) we said the Lord’s Prayer, the common denominator of all Christian worship, but everything else was improvised, everything to me was like Quick or Instant, even if it took longer than Father Tom’s full-length Sunday Mass at the bottom of the mountain. 

I am no final judge of such things, as our Protestant readers are sure to remind me, but I do know my cereal. This may have been cereal, but I can promise you it was not Original Cream of Wheat.

As Flannery O’Connor said famously of the Eucharist, “If it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.”