Like many ’90s kids, I lusted after the panoply of colorful, sugary cereals that were marketed to us in a never-ending parade of cartoon mascots, box-top sweepstakes, and jingles so catchy that, to this day, I remember them more vividly than anything I learned in graduate school. But my mom wasn’t keen on me starting my days with enough sugar to induce a diabetic coma. In our house, both the desperate rabbit and the kids would have been called “silly” for thinking a bowl of Trix constituted a meal.
As an adult, I’ve tried to embrace the wholesome charms of oatmeal, chia seeds, and bran-based cereal, whose primary selling point is its power to induce regular bowel movements. Alas, my true love remains a piping-cold bowl of violently sweet breakfast-in-a-box.
Enter Trader Joe’s Tiny Fruity Cuties. Call it a moment of weakness. Call it an attempt at a middle ground between the hedonist pleasures of General Mills and the bland virtues of Bob’s Red Mill. Just don’t call it a comeback.
The box possessed a similar aesthetic to the children’s book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, featuring pieces of cereal tossed like so much confetti among feather-shaped fluorescent cartoon leaves.
“Is this stuff any good?” I asked the cashier after I had already paid for it.
“I’d give it… a four out of ten,” he answered as my hopes plunged from the top of the coconut tree and shattered on the rainforest floor. Whether it was the look on my face or the Trader Joe’s training kicking in, he quickly added, “But it’s really enjoyable, for sure.”
That evening, I inspected the enlarged-to-show-texture depiction of the cereal on the box.
“They look like tortoise shells,” I mused about the circular pieces, each composed of tiny circles.
“Those are berries,” replied my husband. “Blackberry, raspberry. And there’s an orange. And that one’s a banana,” he said, gleefully pointing to the different shapes with the mounting excitement of a three-year-old giving a TED Talk about fruit salad.
The Tiny Fruities’ colors were muted: soft mauves and anemic yellows, as if to telegraph that the taste was a more reasonable, more mature interpretation of the technicolor Trix the pieces otherwise resembled. If “Trix is for kids,” maybe Tiny Fruity Cuties was for responsible adults who wear orthotic shoe inserts yet loathe the taste of Fiber One.
But was I really making a healthier choice than my preferred pots of spiked blood sugar at the end of the rainbow? I looked to the box for answers, but it provided only a discomfiting tautology: “NATURALLY FLAVORED WITH OTHER NATURAL FLAVORS.”
The next day, I bounded out of bed like a kid on Christmas morning who was wondering if she’d be gifted a “really enjoyable, for sure” Barbie Dreamhouse or would instead find out that Santa is fake, God is dead, and under the tree sits a lump of naturally flavored flavors that merits a four out of ten.
Upon opening the box, I was greeted with the aroma of artificial citrus, redolent of Lemon Pledge. I popped a piece into my mouth. Not bad! It tasted like Cap’n Crunch, with notes of Tropicana from concentrate on the finish. Also, as if Tums were a cereal.
I fought the instinct to cram as many pieces into the coconut tree (read: my mouth) as possible and instead proceeded to eat it like a grown-up: out of a bowl, doused in almond milk and organic blueberries (look, Mom, antioxidants!). And that’s when things started to go very, very wrong.
The first bite of Cutie I took after eating a blueberry was a rancid assault on my taste buds. It was as if once my brain was reminded of what actual fruit tastes like, it recoiled at the starchy impersonation thereof. The lost sweetness of childhood curdled as it collided with the blue reality of adult life.
After I choked down the rest of the bowl, my mouth was coated with a thick rime of something mealy and sweet. It was a familiar aftertaste, the same one I had longed for throughout my youth. The leftover milk was immaculately white, its color unchanged, thanks to TJ’s use of vegetable juice instead of synthetic chemical dyes. A true grownup would have been glad about this; I felt bummed out. I wanted pink milk, dammit.
I agree with the cashier’s numeric rating: Tiny Fruity Cuties is a below-average farce of a cereal. I was hoping for a compromise between my child and adult selves, but what I got was something more like purgatory. I found myself craving the OG sugar cereals with a renewed intensity.
Maybe that poor “silly rabbit” was actually a middle-aged woman in a bunny costume, desperate for a way to eat Trix without anyone judging her for it.