Sometimes, being a value shopper leads to some good things. Like when Cap’n Crunch cereal turned up on a BOGO deal at one of the stores we frequent. This is a little different from many of the food tales that I tell in that I was not the one urging action. In my household, there is another person for whom Cap’n Crunch cereal is a true treat. That person’s husband is a little more ambivalent. The dilemma was that Marianne really loves the stuff, but has not bought it in years – because she is much better about healthy eating than the poor slob who writes here. So a deal was struck – I would buy two boxes of the Cap’n and agreed in advance to do Marianne a solid and eat most of it. The things we do for love. So how did it measure up?
Marianne’s childhood love of Cap’n Crunch came from being one of five kids growing up in a household where the cereal choices were usually restricted to Cheerios or Shredded Wheat. Somehow a box of Cap’n Crunch showed up at her grandparents’ house (isn’t that what grandparents are for?) and life changed.
My relationship with the Cap’n was always a little more complex. My younger sister was the big fan in my family, and our mother was far less invested in what kinds of cereal her children would eat. With only two of us, the rule was we each got to pick a box when we went with Mom to the store. I would normally head to either Cocoa Krispies or Sugar Pops, while Sis alternated between Lucky Charms and Cap’n Crunch.
It was while fulfilling my spousal promise following my Cap’n Crunch purchase that I got curious about its origins and started a little research. It seems that the story started around 1961 with market research indicating that kids under 10 preferred crunchy cereal to soggy cereal. Which proves that dumb surveys of obvious things are not new. Then the Quaker Oats Company hired the research firm of Arthur G. Little to create an extra-crunchy cereal. The only requirements were that it contain oats in the cereal and “Crunch” in the name.
A research scientist named Pam Little came up with a flavoring that was reminiscent of something her New England grandmother had made – butter and brown sugar over rice. The flavoring was contained in an oil that was sprayed on the corn and oat cereal before its final baking – which was new tech in breakfast cereal. The technical end of the project was a success, combining a solid, durable crunch, a unique flavor and something Little called “want moreishness”. I think that may be a polite way of saying “habit forming”.
It seems that the cereal’s marketing plan may have pre-dated the cereal itself. Quaker went to Jay Ward, the creator of the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons. Ward agreed to create the character for a crunchy cereal on the condition that he would have complete creative control with no meddling by the sponsor/manufacturer. The creative people came up with the character of Horatio Crunch, Captain of the S.S. Guppy,. They even supplied a complete biography that was eventually used as a press release and a few ancillary characters. Then Ward hired Daws Butler, the voice of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, to provide the Cap’n’s personality.
When the cereal debuted in September of 1963, a series of commercials aired – a series that ate something like 80% of the advertising budget. It all worked because Cap’n Crunch soon hit the Number 2 sales spot in its category, behind Tony the Tiger’s Frosted Flakes. Which everyone knows turns 9 kinds of soggy after a couple of minutes in the typical milk bath.
There have been some nit-pickers who have argued that our crunch-loving sea farer is not actually a Captain because there are too few bars on his uniform. They say that he is, at most, a Commander in rank. Which would have made a pretty good cereal name too. But then again, nothing says that Horatio is part of the United States Navy, and Quaker has said that a man in charge of his ship is definitely a Captain. Or Cap’n, a late change attributed to the voice talent June Foray (think Rocket J. Squirrel) who, as the pigtailed Brunhilde, ad-libbed the line during some rehearsals. Ward liked the way the term suggested fondness and informality, and it stuck.
Cap’n Crunch may have also created the first cereal spin-offs when Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries debuted in 1967, followed by Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch in 1969. I remember that last one well. The company finally found a way to get itself to the top of my cereal choices around 1970 when it advertised a toy car as a prize inside each box. There were three cars, and to get each one I would have to consume a full box of all three varieties of Cap’n Crunch. The regular one went fine. I have forgotten what the car was. The Crunchberry variety was less pleasant, but I powered through. And I have forgotten what the car was. But the car I really wanted – a Dodge Charger Daytona – was in the Peanut Butter cereal. I hated the stuff, but gagged it all down because that was the Mom rule. If you picked out a box of cereal it was on you to finish it before you got another box. After the herculean accomplishment I went to assemble my red Charger Daytona and – – – snapped the axle during assembly. Another box of cereal would have solved the problem, but the cost was too high.
But back to my recent Cap’n Crunch Binge. It was mostly everything I remembered, both good and bad. It did indeed stay crunchy in milk. Marianne and I had both remembered that trait common in industrial abrasives that would challenge the roof of our mouths as we crunched our way through many a bowl in our youths. The maker seems to have slightly toned down the harsh texture we recalled. We also agreed that the individual pieces are smaller now than they used to be, but then we are larger than we were in our grade school years, so maybe it is just perception.
I did my good turn and the Cap’n Crunch is now out of the house. Unlike with my old go-tos, I do not have an urge to buy more of the Cap’n. I guess I have developed a resistance to that pesky want morieshness. I will try to appriciate that resistance, and maybe attempt to replicate it on some other treats that I crave more than I should. Or not.
Vintage Cap’n Crunch Box from 1963 at legendsrevealed.com
Photo of 1965 Cap’n Cruch Comic from comicrealm.com
Early Box of Cap’n Crunch Peanut Butter cereal from Mrbreakfast.com
Commercials from the YouTube pages as displayed