Although there’s nothing quite like a full, hot breakfast to get you going in the morning, there’s no denying that cold breakfast cereal makes getting a little fuel into your system easier than it might otherwise be. But have you ever wondered, as you upend a carton of two percent over your Cheerios, exactly why we pour milk over cereal in the first place?
The modern breakfast cereal industry is, in a word, booming. According to the 2020 Global Breakfast Cereals Industry report, which was published by Report Linker in March, the cold cereal segment specifically is forecast to grow over two percent and reach a market size of $32.7 billion in the coming years.
But cold cereal is a much more recent invention than you might think. It’s only joined the breakfast table in the late 19th century—and it turns out that the milk has been part of the equation pretty much since the beginning.
Here’s the story of how those little nuggets of whole grains came to be in your breakfast bowl—and why you always add a splash of milk before enjoying them.
What’s Graham Got to Do With It?
The reason we pour milk over cereal is tied up in the history of breakfast cereal itself—and the history of breakfast cereal is tied up with a particular moment in 19th-century history: The temperance movement.
Although the temperance movement is known mainly for its emphasis on alcohol prohibition, many of its participants further trumpeted ideas based around minimizing or eliminating access to pretty much anything enjoyable or fun—including rich or flavorful food. The belief, which was rooted in religion, was that as the University of Michigan library’s Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive puts it, “a healthy body, free of pernicious substances (alcohol, tobacco, meat, and spices) was essential to living a righteous Christian life.”
One such temperance movement participant was Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and dietary reformer. He preached not only about religion but also about diet: According to Graham, a vegetarian diet was essential for proper, healthy living. A key component of Graham’s version of vegetarianism was a type of bread made from coarsely milled flour that held onto its nutrients in a way that the variety of flour used to make white bread at the time did not—and when Graham’s ideas took hold, evolving into Grahamism, his followers began creating and marketing foods they labeled with Graham’s own name: Graham bread, graham crackers, and graham flour.
Graham himself, who died in 1851, didn’t invent graham bread, crackers, or flour, nor did he profit from the marketing of any of these products. But his influence would have a broad reach, indeed—and it directly influenced the development of breakfast cereal in the United States.
Cold Breakfast Cereal Arrives
The very first cold breakfast cereal ever developed was invented in the United States in the 1860s. It’s usually credited to James Caleb Jackson, a former farmer and journalist who later became a physician and a proponent of hydropathy (also known as “the water cure”). Like Sylvester Graham, Jackson believed that a vegetarian diet full of unprocessed grains and free of red meat, caffeine, and alcohol was essential for good health. So, when he took over the Dansville, New York health spa and sanitarium formerly known as Our Home Hygienic Institute in 1858, rechristening it “Our Home on the Hillside,” that’s what he fed his patients.
On the breakfast menu at Our Home was a foodstuff that Jackson referred to as “granula.” Made of the graham flour developed by Graham’s followers, granula—not to be confused with granola, which came along a few decades later (and ended up at the center of an intellectual property battle between Jackson and John Harvey Kellogg)—consisted of nuggets of this flour which had been baked, broken up into pieces, and then baked again. The resulting cereal was filling, to be sure; however, it was also hard as a metaphorical rock. Think Grape-Nuts, but, uh… worse.
The solution? Soaking the cereal in milk or hot water, possibly for as long as overnight. Only then would the stuff become soft enough to eat.
It’s possible, by the way, that granula wasn’t invented by James Caleb Jackson, but rather by his wife, Lucretia. As Sarah Laskow wrote over at Atlas Obscura in 2016, Lucretia Jackson wrote a cookbook in 1867 that included a recipe for what she called “rusk.” Per the cookbook, “rusk” could be made from “various kinds of bread” described elsewhere, “when broken, or so old as to be dry.” She instructed readers to “dry them thoroughly in an oven, break in a mortar, and grind coarsely in a coffee or hand mill.” She then advised that the stuff be eaten “in milk after soaking a little while,” or that readers “soak [it] in hot water a few minutes, and eat with milk gravy, cream, or a little sugar.”
As Laskow noted, “That sounds like cereal to me.”
Regardless, Our Home began marketing granula around 1876—but because of the inconvenience of needing to soak it before eating it, it never quite took off. It wasn’t until the Kellogg brothers—John Harvey and Will Keith—came up with the idea for corn flakes that cold breakfast cereal made its way into the mainstream. Still, though—the practice of pouring milk into cold cereal had already been established by that point, and, well… here we are.
The Great Debate
Although the milk-and-cereal combination is usually positioned as pouring milk over cereal, rather than the other way around, a somewhat surprising debate has sprung up in recent years: Should the cereal really go into the bowl first? Or should the milk go first, with the cereal following shortly behind?
Proponents of the cereal-before-milk technique state that they do so because, as Kristen Chomos put it at her Penn State-hosted blog in 2019, “I can pour exactly how much cereal I want to eat. Then, I can pour the appropriate amount of milk to saturate the cereal, but not over-saturate it.” Meanwhile, milk-before-cereal people posit that adding the cereal later helps maintain the crunchiness of the stuff, preventing it from getting too soggy, too quickly, per ABC News. (Yes, really—the debate became so popular that even mainstream news networks published stories about it.)
It appears that, for now, the cereal-before-milk crowd remains the prevailing bunch—but it’s worth noting that the milk-before-cereal folks have successfully managed to convert at least a few to this opposite position. Writing in an update to an earlier piece about the debate at MadameNoire in 2016, Victoria Uwumarogie noted that, after switching to pouring the milk first, she found that “it definitely helps you save on the liquid leftover after you eat your cereal” —that is, it prevented her from pouring excess milk into her bowl.
Whichever way you pour it, though, it’s worth just being glad about the fact that these days, most cereals aren’t so hard that milk is necessary to be able to chew the stuff. At least a cold breakfast is tastier now than it was back in James Caleb and Lucretia Jackson’s day!