One morning on a recent road trip, I stopped at the local diner in a small Mississippi town. While sitting at the counter having breakfast, I overheard several guys discussing the proper way to season their grits. One gentleman remarked that he and his fellow Arkansans favored sugar while a couple of the local boys said they preferred salt on their grits. Another local spoke up, declaring he too liked sweet grits, “with a big pat of butter.”
Then one man, originally from the Northeast, declared that he was raised on Cream of Wheat instead of grits.
“Isn’t that the same as Farina?”
“Farina is made from corn.”
“No, no, they’re both made from wheat. Farina is just a brand name.”
“Cream of Wheat is a brand, too. It’s the one in the red box with the old white guy on the front.”
“Yeah? I thought that was Quaker Oats.”
With that I quietly paid my bill, walked to my car, and got back on the road, thinking how little we sometimes know of cultures and foods outside the surroundings in which we were raised. It was obvious that most of the locals at that diner had probably never traveled more than fifty miles from their small town, and certainly had the limited palate to show for it.
I myself, in spite of a culinary career that has exposed me to all kinds of foods from around the world, tend to list the foods I grew up with as my favorites. And, having grown up as the son of a couple of Oklahoma farmers, cream of wheat would certainly not make the list!
Cream of Wheat is a brand of farina, a porridge-type breakfast food that while having a texture similar to grits, is ground simolina wheat kernels instead of ground corn. There are also several other brands of farina sold in this country, the most prominent being Malt-O-Meal, third largest cereal manufacturer in America founded in 1919, and Farina, a brand started by Pillsbury in 1898 and purchased by Malt-O-Meal from U.S. Mills in 2009. And there are several smaller brands including Phoebe, Bob’s Red Mill, Goober Gourmet, and Honeyville.
Cream of Wheat was invented by Thomas S. Amidon, head miller at Diamond Mills in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and made its debut at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Amidon had begun making the hot breakfast porridge for his family, when in the midst of a national economic downturn he went to the mill owners, Emery Mapes, George Bull, and Clifford George, and convinced them to market the cereal he called Cream of Wheat (so named because it was so white).
Demand for Cream of Wheat soon outgrew the Grand Forks mill, so in 1897 Mapes, Bull, and Clifford moved the mill to Minneapolis. Growth continued and by 1928 the plant had expanded two additional times. In 1962, after sixty-nine years of being run by generations of the original owners, the mill was sold to Nabisco. Nabisco merged with Standard Brands in 1981 and was then bought out by Kraft Foods in 2000. In 2007, Kraft sold Cream of Wheat to B&G Foods where it continues to be produced by the same formula it began with 120 years ago.
The Cream of Wheat package is indeed red, however the “guy on the front” is an African-American chef named Rastus, developed by artist Edward V. Brewer. It is said that an actual chef by the name of Frank L. White was Brewer’s model for the box. Mr. White died in 1938 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Leslie, Michigan. On his headstone is an etching of the man depicted on the Cream of Wheat box.
My wife, an Italian lady from New York, initiated me to the delicate taste of the original unflavored Cream of Wheat some thirty years ago. She prefers it lightly salted with butter and a little milk or light cream. And while it’s certainly not a bad way to get started on a cold morning, I myself am partial to oatmeal over either Cream of Wheat or grits.
Yep, you guessed it. Oatmeal’s the hot breakfast cereal I grew up on.