Although there are tantalizing references to granola in the works of the pre-Socratics, it is by no means certain that the famously lactose-intolerant Pythagoreans had in mind granola in the form of cereal rather than bars. Plato certainly assumed the latter, as should be obvious from his scathing characterization of the Pythagoreans as “charlatans who leave behind them a trail of wrappers.” Therefore, it remains fairly safe to say that the modern science of cereal studies began no earlier than with the 1764 publication of Linnaeus’s De Cerialibus.
In Linnaeus’s rudimentary typology, all cereals were divided into two broad categories: those that float and spill all over the place when you pour the milk in and those that sink and harden into something like cement if you forget to rinse the bowl. Linnaeus’s work was greeted with broad enthusiasm in the 18th century, particularly in England, where Dr. Johnson adjudged his work “crunchy sweet,” and Gibbon was inspired to begin work on his magisterial Sinking and Floating of the Roman Empire.
Across the channel, Linnaeus’s theories were largely ignored. In France, where the intelligentsia clung stubbornly to the traditional “continental” breakfast, De Cerialibus inspired a profound ennui, best exemplified in the famous anecdote involving Voltaire. The celebrated philosophe is said to have expressed his disdain for Linnaeus’s taxonomy by tossing a croissant into a bowl of milk with the words “Observe: It floats not. Neither does it harden.” He is alleged to have delivered this criticism in fluent French. Voltaire later suffered from terrible constipation, owing to the lack of fiber in his diet, but he refused all doctors’ orders that he switch to a breakfast of All-Bran.
The ever-practical Franklin seized on the purported health benefits of cereals that harden. His oft-quoted maxim “To stay strong and in the pink, break your fast on foods that sink” is but one of hundreds of pithy aphorisms he created during the American Revolution while lobbying the French government on behalf of Kellogg’s.
The first cracks in Linnaeus’s theory began to appear in the early 20th century with Heisenberg’s assertion of the so-called Rice Krispies paradox. The apparent paradox was based on a rather intractable experimental anomaly; namely, that Rice Krispies, a notorious floater, also dries hard to the bottom of a bowl. In fact, the crisped-rice cereal exhibits an almost equal degree of buoyancy and hardness. The publication of Heisenberg’s findings made a shambles of the once-tidy field of cereal studies.
Since Heisenberg, much noise has been made by anti-rationalists who seek to divorce cereal studies from the hard sciences. Shockley’s suggestion that we categorize cereals into “the browns” and “the coloreds” was widely repudiated as racist and need hardly be considered. Meanwhile, the celebrated tendency of Cap’n Crunch to dissolve into a sort of golden milk, not unlike the kind that is popular in the Far East, has inspired many truth-seekers to turn their focus from the Western notion of a crisp, dry product, fresh out of the box, to an Eastern-inspired interest in the mushy, dissolved after-cereal.
Thus, there is little consensus on the subject of cereal, even as the Granola Revisionists—rightfully regarded as crackpots by the scientific community—have gained mindshare among the unlettered. In late 2008, over 300 scientists, including 42 Nobel laureates, signed an open letter denouncing organic cereals for “tasting like cardboard.” Yet the letter had little effect on the infamously anti-science (and reputedly pro-egg) Bush administration. Consequently, cereals remain as baffling as they must have been tens of thousands of years ago, when Homo sapiens first formed crude bowls to hold their Fruity Pebbles.