Turns out, I have a natural handicap when it comes to eating like normal people. My daughter discovered this when she was in elementary school and forever engaged in a war of attrition over food: She wanted to live on green apples and Lucky Charms; I thought a third item should be added to the diet. A few years into the campaign, she finally asked me, “What cereal did Grandma let you eat when you were a kid?”
“I didn’t eat cereal.”
“Why not? Was Giti as mean as you are?”
Giti is my mother. She raised my sisters and me with the kind of discipline usually exhibited by Marine sergeants. But, no, she wasn’t mean.
“Did she think she’s queen of the world and can be your boss? Did she rather you starved and died than let you eat ‘hydrogenated oil’?”
No. We just didn’t have cereal.
I know it’s hard to believe, but I never ate breakfast cereal, never even saw Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies until I was 13 and traveled to New York with my parents for the first time. In Iran, we ate flat bread with butter and jam, drank black tea with sugar and, for the kids, a teaspoon of fish oil every morning. In New York, we stayed with my aunt in Great Neck and learned all about things like sour cream and cream cheese, waffles, non-fat and low-fat milk and those little flakes you poured out of a cardboard box into a bowl. You would think this isn’t a big deal. I certainly never gave it a thought, never felt cheated or weird because of it until I saw the light blazing out of my daughter’s eyes and understood she had made a major find.
“What do you mean, you didn’t have cereal?” she cried, loud enough for her brothers to hear in the next room and rush in for the unveiling. “You mean in the whole country? No cereal in the whole, entire country?”
That’s right. As far as I know.
“You had cars but no cereal? What kind of place doesn’t have cereal?”
They called my sister’s kids to break the news, called my parents to obtain verification, got their friends to see if their Iranian parents would serve as a “second source.” When the shock wore off and the giggles abated, they decided that this childhood deprivation explained everything that is strange and incomprehensible to them not just about me, but about all Iranians and even the country itself.
So that’s why they had to beg and plead, then finally sneak a six-pack of mini cereal boxes into my cart at the supermarket every trip.
“It’s because you come from the land of no cereal.”
That’s why my mother discovers a new cousin every time she leaves the house, why my grandmother lived to age 108, why my great-grandfather barely skipped a beat, didn’t even require surgery, when he was shot at close range in the forehead by his lover’s jealous husband. The doctors cleaned up the blood and sent him home, let the fragments of shrapnel remain lodged in the skull till he died of natural causes some 40 years later.
“It’s because they lived in the land of no cereal.”
That’s why I say and do things that most normal people would avoid, like making friends with the homeless schizophrenic guy who hangs out around the coffee place I’ve made my second home. He reads my Jewish Journal articles regularly and circles some words he believes are code. He has this idea that I’m communicating the word of Jesus through this secret language I’ve devised and keep hidden in a Jewish publication. I like him because he’s soft spoken and gentle, and because he reads my articles and waits for me to show up every day so he can show me the passages he’s decrypted. We’ve even had lunch together at the corner coffee shop; he’s good company if you don’t mind sharing him with all the invisible people he’s always talking to.
“It’s because you grew up without cereal.”
Think about it: All those varieties of cereal in every supermarket, all those TV ads, all the debate about artificial coloring and refined sugar; there’s even a classic novel, “Breakfast of Champions,” by Kurt Vonnegut, that drew its title from the General Mills product. Cereal is not like broccoli or braces — mostly American products that can be skipped without major repercussions. If you missed out on cereal growing up, what else have you missed of the pop culture that defines the Americans of your generation, and your children’s generation?
Imagine taking a person like me, from a place like that, and expecting her to function normally in the land of Hot Pockets and Pop-Tarts. Of course my reality will forever be different from “regular” folks’. Of course we’ll forever be out of step with each other because of the absence of a common frame of reference.
As they grew up, my sons became increasingly wiser in their choice of food. My daughter now lives on Greek yogurt and plain, undressed lettuce, but her brothers have become nutrition Nazis who know more about what’s good or bad for the body than any sane person should. But this doesn’t mean there’s anything close to a meeting of the minds in our neck of the woods: While they’ve evolved and learned and become little scientists who can trace the natural life of a single calorie down to its wretched end, I’ve kept the tastes and habits of my cereal-free upbringing.
I like tuna sandwiches without tuna, hamburgers without the meat. I hate cinnamon, non-fat milk, sugar-free cakes, sugar substitutes. I can’t last longer than three hours on any diet because I have a visceral resistance to cutting out bread and starches and replacing them with “lean protein and good fats.” I’ve been trying to lose the same five pounds for the last 10 years. I keep asking my older son to design a diet for me, print it out and stick on the fridge, and proceed to ignore it.
“Mom,” my daughter tries to console me. “Persians can’t diet.”
I asked my son again the day after Thanksgiving.
“I ate four kinds of cakes yesterday,” I said as he prepared his morning shake of fresh fruit, protein powder and water. He pretended he hadn’t heard me.
“I’m sure I’ve gained a few pounds.” He turned on the blender and let it rip for five whole minutes.
“I’m thinking you should tell me what to eat today to make up for that.” He turned the blender on again.
“At least tell me what to eat for breakfast.”
“A banana and 20 almonds.” He finally said something.
I got the banana. Didn’t get the almonds.
“Twenty almond whats?” Almond triangles? Almond Joy bars?
“Twenty individual almonds.” Raw, unsalted.
As far as I know, nuts are measured by weight, not unit.
“What kind of breakfast is that?” He put down the empty glass of shake and headed to the door. “Can we drop the banana and add half a muffin? Can I have some bread instead of nuts?”
“No,” he said. “But you can switch to pistachios if you want. You had those in Iran when you were growing up, right?”
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.
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