Cream of Wheat

By Lori Nawyn

My Grandma Jensen could make the perfect bowl of Cream of Wheat. The kind that would glide smoothly up a straw into your mouth to be greeted with delight by your tongue. As a child, I was unaware of how long Grandma labored over her old avocado-green stove, stirring the smooth mixture to perfection. Cognizant only of the fact that the cereal filled me with comforting warmth, I knew I had partaken of something very special.

When I married and had children of my own, I remembered my favorite childhood breakfast. Grandma had been a stay-at-home mother in every sense of the phrase. But I was a working mother and, though Grandma would never have endorsed it, I elected to buy instant Cream of Wheat—the kind that was supposed to cook quickly and efficiently in the microwave. Microwaving, I rationalized, would allow me to fill my children’s stomachs with something warm and wonderful, and still get to work on time.

Before serving it for the first time, I told my family about the wonders of Cream of Wheat: its soft, sweet texture, and the fact you could slurp it up through a straw. I placed the much-anticipated bowls of steaming goodness in front of them and watched them dig in, spoon in one hand, straw in the other. Much to my surprise, however, dismay and confusion distorted their faces.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Lumps,” they mumbled. “They’re kind of hard to . . . chew. And it won’t come up the straw!”

Lumps? I didn’t remember Cream of Wheat having lumps! I spooned through one of the servings and tried to flatten the offending globs on the side of the bowl with a spoon. My haphazard efforts had little effect.

“Mom,” my children whined, “can’t we have something else?”

I doled out our usual mainstay—boxes of cold cereal. Then, puzzled, I tried once more to follow the directions for microwaving Cream of Wheat: microwave, stir, microwave. And still, there were lumps. On ensuing mornings I thought of using milk like Grandma had, but abandoned the notion in favor of water. The box said water would work. Maybe I just needed to adjust the measurements, the time, or the power on the microwave. No. My efforts resulted in a concoction that boiled over and, when cooled, set up like cement in the bowl and in the microwave. With reluctance, I abandoned Cream of Wheat as a breakfast option.

Over the years, I’d often spot the familiar red box on grocery store shelves. My mouth would water. I’d buy some and try again, only to obtain the same results. The box would then be relegated to the back of the pantry where it became infested with weevils, necessitating its disposal.

Then, last year, my other grandmother died suddenly on Christmas Day. At her graveside service my mind became mired with concern. My grandmothers were plain, humble women. Their names would never be written in the annals of history. Yet, they’d left behind something of incalculable value. Their tireless efforts had created a legacy of devotion and caring, both in and outside the family circle. What legacy would I leave? My life had been one of trying to prove myself, and I hadn’t always been patient with my children. My attempts at relating to them were often, sadly, like my attempts at making Cream of Wheat—hurried and not very palatable.

Weeks later, in the grocery store once again, I searched the top shelf of the hot cereal section. There it was—Cream of Wheat. Something gnawed at me to give it another try. Three of my children were already grown and gone; only one remained at home. I set my jaw in determination. My hand reached out for the slow-cooked version, not the instant.

Late that night, I carefully measured the milk—not water—and cereal into a pan, the way I’d seen Grandma do it. I stirred slowly. When I finished there were a few lumps but they were very small.

The next morning, buoyed by my success, I quickly whisked the milk and cereal together and clanged the bowl into the microwave. Milk must be the secret, I thought. I planned to set the timer and interrupt it frequently in order to stir. As fate would have it, I set the timer and, in my usual rush, forgot. When I pulled out the bowl, there were no lumps, just an unyielding mass. Staring at it in my hands, I finally understood; making Cream of Wheat correctly required loving attention and care.

Finally one morning, I slowed my pace down dramatically. I got out Grandma’s old copper-bottomed pan, carefully measured the ingredients, and remained at the stove stirring until the Cream of Wheat was … perfect. I scooped some into a bowl and poured just the right amount of milk and sugar over the top. I smiled and placed the bowl in front of my youngest daughter. Tasting it, she smiled in return.

By the time she reached fifth grade, Lori Nawyn had obnoxious down to a science. Fortunately, a class essay assignment let her channel her emotions in a constructive manner. She’s written for regional and national publications, and has co-authored three books. Her dream of illustrating for children has come to fruition within the past two years. She is married to a firefighter and is the mother of four children, grandmother of one, and mentor to two energetic Siberian huskies.