Marianne recently suffered through some oral surgery. I know, right? One of the instructions she got from the surgeon was to eat soft foods. One of the soft foods that came to her mind was Cream of Wheat cereal. My job, dutiful hubs that I am, was to head for the store to obtain the temporary diet supplies. I found the Cream of Wheat, but what do you think was next to it? Only one of my favorite childhood items – CoCo Wheats. As you might have guessed, I came home with two varieties of hot cereal.
I have written before about how the kitchen was not my mother’s natural habitat when I was growing up. But she did like to do nice things for we kids, and one of those was to fix us hot cereal on cold winter mornings. At different times we got oatmeal, Cream of Wheat and CoCo Wheats. I liked the first two (and still do) but the third was the one I LOVED.
During my law school years, four of us shared an apartment. One of the guys (Dave) was just as crazy about CoCo Wheats as I was, and a box was often pulled out on weekend mornings during the frigid Indiana winters. When such a morning presented itself, one of us would start walking around the apartment chanting “Co-Co-Wheats. Co-Co-Wheats” over and over until there was some buy-in from the others and a batch was whipped up for our breakfast enjoyment.
When I got married and had kids of my own, I was happy to cook up a potful for the young ‘uns. It was the kind of nice thing my mother used to do, but with a side benefit: I loved CoCo Wheats every bit as much as they did and made enough for me to join them.
I had always assumed that CoCo Wheats was simply a late-added product extension of Cream of Wheat. But a little digging proves that I was wrong about that and that the story is far more interesting than I expected it would be.
Cream of Wheat was introduced by the Diamond Milling Company of Grand Forks, SD in 1893, which was later re-named as the Cream of Wheat Company until it was bought by Nabisco in 1961. CoCo Wheats, on the other hand, was a product from a company you probably never heard of: Little Crow Foods, of Warsaw, Indiana. I grew up about 40 miles away from Warsaw and I had never heard of it myself until I started a little CoCo Wheats investigation. Little Crow, by the way, was not the company that brought us Old Crow – that was something ill-suited for children, though it could warm your insides in a different way.
Little Crow had also begun as a flour mill, until it introduced a line of pancake mixes in 1919. It added CoCo Wheats to its lineup in 1930 and continued to make it until the company closed in 2012. Fortunately for we CoCo heads, the product was acquired by MOM Brands (formerly the Malt-O-Meal Company) in 2012. MOM was, in turn, acquired by Post in 2015. You probably also never heard the product’s original name: “Little Crow Wheat Cereal, Cocoa Coated.” It became CoCo Wheats in 1933.
While Cream of Wheat was heavily promoted in print ads going back to its beginnings, CoCo Wheats seems to have never received that kind of promotion. If there were early print ads for CoCo Wheats, I have yet to find them. However, the company was an early adopter of television, with a number of ads going back to at least the early 1950’s.
Another difference between those two hot wheat cereals is in their branding. Cream of Wheat’s packaging and advertising consistently featured a kindly, smiling African-American cook, an image that has only recently been relegated to the dumpster. Is it a good thing or a bad thing when a company that is so amazingly consistent in promoting an image used an image that was so socially problematic for so long? CoCo Wheats has, on the other hand, richocheted wildly from one advertising theme to another, with no apparent consistency at all. “Hey, let’s try this!” seems to have been the advertising philosophy for the cereal.
One animated campaign from the early 1960’s featured a Coo-Coo Bird voiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc (of Looney Toons fame). They later re-did it in color but ditched Mel. Oh well, at least they seem to have avoided the kinds of ads that cause we 21st Century people to bury out head in our hands as we mutter “Just what were they thinking?”
Oh well, do we really need advertising when the cereal is so good?
I also learned that these hot wheat cereals are made mostly from “farina” is a term that refers to “wheat middlings” that are ground for use in the cereal. CoCo Wheats, of course, wins the category by adding something called “pure breakfast cocoa” (according to an article at Mr. Breakfast.) Nobody explains how “breakfast cocoa” is different from regular cocoa. Do they sift out all of the cocoa morsels that are more suited for lunch, dinner or dessert? Do they only process it before 9 am? Or is it a label trick to convince skeptical mothers that chocolate cereal is a good idea and is not the same thing as a Duncan Hines cake mix? So many questions.
That article contains a number of comments that indicate that CoCo Wheats has been difficult to find in recent years. Which makes me wonder if my fave is becoming a cocoa-headed stepchild of Big Cereal. I also wonder if CoCo Wheats was more regional than national for much of its life. I guess growing up one county over from where the stuff was made had its perks. And I guess this means that I will have to buy lots of it to help keep demand up.
I can report that CoCo Wheats are just as good now as when I was 32, 22 or 12 years old. I will confess to being a traditionalist who eschews the microwave directions in favor of the old-fashioned stove-top method. Add it to boiling water, stir it for 30 seconds, then let it sit in a covered pot for a couple of minutes to thicken up and breakfast is served! A mighty satisfying breakfast, too. Isn’t it always healthier when you cook it yourself?
All good things bring imitators out of the woodwork, and it seems that somewhere along the way the Cream of Wheat people brought out a cocoa/chocolate version. Although they see a need to add almonds to theirs. I am not sure I have ever noticed that one in the stores. Thanks guys, I think I’ll stick to the original. And with another cold Indiana winter on the horizon, I have a nearly-full box of CoCo Wheats to warm my innards and let my inner child out to play.
COAL Update: You know the old phrase “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there”? That can apply to cars too. Although I “lived there” for four years.