Accept No Substitutes!

picture_22_400x400Ever since I was a child, I’ve been cursed with an appreciation for the finer things in life; expensive cars, luxury vacations, real estate, complicated timepieces – and of course, brand name breakfast cereals.  Nowhere, in fact, are brand names more important than in the breakfast arena, because there more than anywhere else – more than the genuine sheepskin leather covering the seats of your European sports car, more than the bespoke stitching on your Fendi suit or Louis Vuitton luggage, more even than your Michelin starred meals – does branding equate to quality. At least that has always been my feeling. Try explaining that argument to your farm-raised Midwestern mother at 10 years old when she’s trying to save three cents per ounce (compared to the leading name brand) by buying Malt-O-Meal Flavorless Crunch Rings in a bag large enough to feed livestock. There’s not an argument you can make that’s going to change her mind, which means you’re going to be stuck eating 950 ounces of God-awful, sugarless, gravel circles for the entire school year.

My mother’s argument was that generics were the exact same cereal that just happened to ride on the conveyor that dumped into bags instead of boxes, and even if that wasn’t true, shut up or get a job, whereas mine was that generics were horrible and terrible and tasted like excrement and people would see them in our pantry and know we were poor. I maintained this opinion for upwards of 36 years, through college and all manner of financial difficulty. Only now that I have two little money-suckers of my own has my position begun to soften, and it’s led to some recent tension in my marriage. mini spoonersMy first foray into the land of B-team cereals was a 36oz bag of “Mini Spooners”, which were a generic version of Frosted Mini-Wheats. It was a ridiculous amount of cereal given that I like variety in my breakfast foods, and tend to prefer the warmth of Toaster Strudels to cold bowls of grain, but it was like ten cents per ounce!! HOW could I pass that up? I couldn’t, that’s how!  So I bit the bullet and bought them, and I actually didn’t think they were terrible. Though considering that name brand Frosted Mini-Wheats aren’t all that spectacular it was probably a low bar, and may have skewed my opinion of off brands in the positive direction a little prematurely. My wife was not so easily swayed, so when I asked her to try the store brand of her favorite cereal, Honey Bunches of Congealed Sugar Wads, she was hesitant – by which I mean she complained for two weeks before finally doing it, while making it a point to indicate as pouty little girloften as possible – via very disgruntled body language – that she was purchasing the box under extreme duress, dropping it in the cart while hunched over and refusing to look up, and shuffling her feet slowly across the floor.  When she announced after one bowl, then, that she didn’t like it, the revelation did not come as a huge shock. Still, being committed to my recent conversion, and still broke from paying the daycare to house my little demons, I insisted that it couldn’t be that bad and tried a handful for myself. Again, I didn’t think it was terrible – I would describe the flavor as “sugary” and “cereal-like”, with a texture and mouthfeel akin to Frosted Flakes. “Delightful!” I exclaimed, as my wife sneered. “They’re horrible – it’s like eating cardboard and they taste nothing like my Honey Bunches of Deliciousness!”. “Okay, fine,” I told her, “you never have to buy them again, but let’s at least finish this box.” If that made her feel any better she didn’t show it, as she continued to lament every horrid bowl she was forced to choke down. Finally – unable to take it anymore, and wavering in my new belief that generics might be okay after all – I went out, got a box of the brand name stuff, and suggested that we do a blind taste test to see if she could actually tell the difference, or if she was just full of Congealed Sugar Wads. cereal taste testMy wife emphatically accepted this challenge, so I rushed to find a scarf to cover her eyes, thinking it might come in handy later as well (Spoiler alert: Nope.), and poured the cereal. Mixing them did cross my mind – I’m a natural born cheater – though she was serious enough about this test that she specifically forbade mixing before I even had the bowls poured. Turns out it probably wouldn’t have mattered – her palette was sophisticated enough that I swear she could’ve spit out individual generic flakes as she inhaled the rest. One bite was enough to make the determination, and she never put down the brand name bowl after that. It was impressive, and worst of all, meant I was wrong. Unfortunately I couldn’t argue, but on the plus side, I now have indisputable empirical evidence that both vindicates my childhood viewpoint, and proves once again that we should never be willing to settle for “good enough!” My wife never will, and I’m going to take that as a compliment – even if I’m not her favorite person at the moment.  I’m also going to call my mother IMMEDIATELY! J ust do me a favor and don’t tell her about the Mini Spooners…

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