Sunday, March 24, 2013


I don’t eat cereal. We might as well get that out into the open now. One of the things that disgusts me most in life is to see someone else fill a bowl with cereal and then cover it in milk. There’s a certain smell to it I can’t handle, not to mention something very graphic and disturbing about the noise of someone chewing on grains soaked in liquid. If this person is really into their cereal—like my husband and son sometimes are—they might even end this treat by drinking the milk out of the bowl. That’s when I have to leave the room. I guess this aversion makes me a really strange, suspect kind of person. Most people think so. That’s why for months I’ve been avoiding a Royal Warrant I’m not sure what to do with: Kellogg’s. The American cereal company has held a warrant from HM the Queen, since 1955, as “Purveyors of Cereals.”

The best possible outcome for my experimentation with Kellogg’s cereal would be that I come away from this project actually liking cereal, right? If I start eating it with milk, even better. If you’re holding your breath expecting this conclusion, I should let you down now. This isn’t the same story as Wilkin & Son’s. But it’s still a great story. Do you know anything about Kellogg’s? I didn’t. This is a fantastic company with an amazing history.
The cereal company got its start in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the late 19th century, at a sanitarium connected with the Seventh Day Adventist church. The sanitarium offered a program of physical exercise and convalescence to strengthen patients sick with myriad diseases. According to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (a book I found somewhat offensive both because of the corn-on-the-cob on its cover and the entries on “Kentucky Fried Chicken” and “ketchup” that followed that on “Kellogg’s”), its famous patients included Henry Ford, J.C. Penney, and Thomas Edison. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg managed the institution and worked in the so-called “experimental kitchen and food laboratories in which original research is constantly bringing out new facts and products.” Kellogg eschewed the typical diet of late 19th century Americans, which he believed to be too heavy on meat and dairy products. He instead advocated a vegetarian lifestyle and the benefits of eating fiber. Kellogg worked to make grains more palatable for the sanitarium’s invalid patients, many of who could not chew hard, crunchy grains. Together with his brother William Keith (W.K.), he invented flaked cereal by pressing grains of wheat and corn between rollers to flatten them before baking them in the oven.  

According to the company’s website, W.K. Kellogg began Kellogg’s in 1906. As American consumers shifted from eating protein-heavy breakfasts to those that centered on whole grains, Kellogg’s continued to expand its presence in a growing market by catchy advertising campaigns. The company also sold each box of its cereal with W.K.’s signature appearing on the front so that customers could distinguish his boxes of cereal from his many competitors’.
Kellogg’s also introduced popular new products like Bran Flakes in 1915 and Rice Krispies in 1923. It was in the early 1920s that Kellogg’s first began selling its cereal in the United Kingdom. The company has remained relevant through especially difficult decades in American history by responding to them effectively. During the Great Depression, Kellogg cut the average workday of his workers and added a fourth shift to his factory in Battle Creek to spread money among more workers. In the 1940s the company produced K-rations for American soldiers serving in World War II. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Kellogg’s continued to introduce brand names that are still household names today: Corn Pops, Frosted Flakes, Special K, Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, and Pop-Tarts among them. It responded to the nutrition and fitness crazes of the 1970s and 80s by continuing to emphasize the nutritional value of its low-fat, high fiber whole grain products. At the turn of the century, Kellogg’s remained relevant by acquiring new brands: among them Bear Naked, Kashi, and Gardenburger.

So many of these Royal Warrant holders have a company story marked by a time of intense prosperity and then decline. If Kellogg’s is currently in decline, is a thing of the past, that’s not obvious. Just last year the company made an aggressive move into the world of snack foods by acquiring the Pringles brand from fellow Royal Warrant holder Proctor & Gamble. A company with historical roots in a small sanitarium in Michigan is today a worldwide powerhouse.
This mention of sanitariums reminded me of Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Greece. When I read Robert Lacey’s biography of Queen Elizabeth, Monarch, I was struck by the paragraphs describing the very difficult life Alice had after her family was forced out of Greece. Alice suffered an emotional breakdown after her marriage ended, and she spent a good deal of time in a Swiss sanitarium under the care of Sigmund Freud. Philip’s relationship with his mother was strained; she was remarkably absent from his young life because of her own problems. When an aged and declining Alice came to live with the royal family at Buckingham Palace in the 1960s, it was awkward to say the least.

Lacey writes, maybe somewhat coyly, that Alice “added an illuminating dimension to the family life.”  Alice was near-deaf and a chronic smoker, and her presence was often announced by “clouds of tobacco smoke, accompanied by fits of bronchitic coughing.” Alice had founded an order of Greek nursing nuns, and before her death she took to wearing the habit associated with their order. The image of a Greek nun smoking and playing her favorite card game, Canasta, in Buckingham Palace created something of a spectacle, as did Alice’s tendency to fight bitterly with Philip even if she did call him by his childhood nickname of “Bubbikins.”
Princess Alice might have spent her last years acting just as flakey as the cereal invented by the Kellogg brothers in Battle Creek, but she was welcomed at Buckingham Palace. According to Lacey, Queen Elizabeth was respectful and kind to her ostentatious mother-in-law and known to keep her company and chat with her animatedly.  Members of the palace staff wondered how they could communicate so easily since Alice was so hard of hearing. Lacey writes that “Elizabeth II enjoyed getting to know her unusual husband’s highly unusual mother, and she supported her religious charities generously” and that they were known to have animated conversations “despite her deafness.” The young princes Edward and Andrew grew fond of their grandmother and frequently went to her quarters to play Chinese Checkers.

It’s really interesting that a family so concerned with its image, with how it looks to other people, made room for someone like Princess Alice and ignored her oddities. It wasn’t until well after Princess Alice’s death in 1969 that the royal family learned just how deserving she was of her last comfortable days in the palace. Lacey writes that: “the princess had given shelter, while living in Nazi-occupied Athens, to the widow and children of Haimaki Cohen, an Athenian Jew, rebuffing the enquiries of suspicious gestapo agents by playing up her deafness and appearing to be less than bright. She saved the Cohens from transportation...”
I’m left wondering (and maybe Queen Elizabeth was too) if Princess Alice wasn’t also playing up her deafness and pretending to be less than bright while she lived at Buckingham Palace with the royal family. Was the smoking, card-playing nun pulling one over on her uptight Protestant relatives each time they turned their backs? I hope so. Or maybe Alice’s age and lack of inhibition finally left her room to freely be herself, just as unique as W.K. Kellogg hoped his signature would appear on every box of his cereal.

Where to Buy: Literally anywhere.

Sunday, March 17, 2013



I wrote several months ago about my mother-in-law bringing back a huge bag of Royal Warrant products for me after she took a work trip to England. I’ve mostly exhausted the list of what I got—with my entries on Heinz, Charbonnel etWalker, Robinson’s barley water, and Brasso metal polish to show for it—but there are still a few items left. The strangest is a box of Bryant & May matches. Swedish Match Industries has held a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty the Queen since 1972 as Match Manufacturers.”

Matches have fallen out of fashion a bit, don’t you think? People don’t smoke cigarettes as much now as they used to, and if they do they’re much more likely to use lighters than to reach for a matchbook. We have one of those long-handled lighters that we use to light candles around our house, and other than that we don’t have much need for a device that can start a good quick fire. That’s why I was surprised by how taken I’ve become with my little box of Bryant & May matches. I admit I’m rationing them and I’ll be sad when they run out.
What would make one match better than another, or better than an American variety you could go get at Walgreens right this second? I’m happy to tell you. For starters (that’s a pun), these are the fastest-lighting matches I’ve ever seen. Ready, set, done. Anyone who’s ever gone through three or four of those cheap matchbook matches before successfully lighting a candle or a cigarette knows what I’m talking about. A match that doesn’t want to light is a pain in the ass. When these matches light up, they do it with so much gusto that I’m reminded of lighting a sparkler on the 4thof July.* They sizzle and pop with the most satisfying sound, and each time I wonder for a split second if the match I’m holding is about to start shooting off little pink or green or blue fire stars. This week I’ve also been reminded of the ritual of lighting a match—of needing to be responsible and somewhat grown-up to do it and of doing something that you don’t usually do unless for a special occasion: a candle-lit Valentine’s dinner with someone you’re crazy about, lighting a bright wax number on a child’s birthday cake, or finding yourself a quick source of light should the power go out. I’m also really keen on the great smell they give off when you first light them. You don’t get that from a lighter.

Even if I like my matches, I admit I’m not so taken with the box they come in. The photograph on the front shows four people, all dressed in white, just sort of standing around outside near the ocean. Presumably they’re…having a barbecue? But you don’t know because you can’t see any food or anything like a grill or a spatula or a set of tongs, and ultimately it’s just sort of a tease. What are those people doing out there? I ask myself each time I look at the matches.

Even odder than this incomplete picture is a small red box containing a stick figure with a flame on its arm and neck. The text next to that reads: DANGER! FIRE KILLS CHILDREN.

Errr…yes. Yes, it does. This is one of the more obvious warnings I’ve read on a product in a long time. It’s almost as good as that warning you sometimes see on packages of peanuts that they were processed in a facility containing nuts.
But back to DANGER! FIRE KILLS CHILDREN. Everyone can agree that a child shouldn’t be playing with this box of matches. What’s maybe not so obvious when it comes to what harms children is, well, bad parenting. Take, for instance, the astounding amount of literature criticizing the parenting methods of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip. Every biography I’ve read of the Queen or her children opines about their parenting skills. At first I completely ignored these sections of her biographies, specifically any criticism of her. So what if she left a very young baby with a nanny so she could tour the world? That’s what royals do, maybe. So what if they sent Prince Charles off to a boarding school in northern Scotland—Gordonstoun, which was the subject of an article last month that revealed anew just how much he hated the place—instead of to nearby Eton, so that he could make a man out of himself at the tender age of 13? What business is that of mine, right? So what if Philip was aloof and rarely present for Charles, so that Philip’s uncle and a close family friend—Dickie Mountbatten—stepped into this fatherly role, especially once Charles was in his 20s? Maybe I just don’t have the full story. But...I guess I’m starting to lose my nerve apologizing for these people.

If you can throw a rock and hit someone with a nasty story to tell about the Queen’s parenting, it’s comparatively harder to dig up anything about Bryant & May. The company dates back to the mid-1800s, when its factories in London and Australia supplied matches to the British Empire. The East End factory is most famous for the strike that took place there in 1888, led by its mostly female workers who demanded better working conditions. If you’re interested, Louise Raw’s 2009 book Striking a Match: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History is a fantastic read. 

Bryant & May underwent a series of mergers with other, competing matchmaking companies beginning in 1901, and full ownership of the company was taken by Swedish Match in 1987. The factories in London, Australia, Liverpool, and Northern Ireland (a photo of the former one in London, below, was taken by Fen Fahey), were closed down in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The company name is still registered by Swedish Match, but there’s not much more left of it. A unique collection of Bryant & May matches, as well as older fire-starting devices from around the world, can be found at the Science Museum in South Kensington.

It strikes me (that's another pun, and I'm sorry) that I'm not getting what I want this week, either from learning more about the royal family or from researching these matches that I love so much. The royal family just doesn’t often look good on paper; it’s flaws and foibles are so ugly and obvious. You don’t have to look very hard to bump into them. The Bryant & May company as it exists today is somewhat similar. Despite its long history, it’s now owned by a Swedish company that doesn’t make its matches domestically and that also produces a wide array of cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Neither of these stories is one I particularly want to tell.

Where to buy: I honestly think you can only buy these in the UK. If I'm wrong, I’d love to know.
*Is it in good taste for an American writing a blog about British royals to mention the 4thof July? Maybe not.