Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Reading Cereal Boxes: Pre-Packaging History and Indigenous Identities

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Reading Cereal Boxes: Pre-Packaging History and Indigenous Identities

Article excerpt

Welcome to H.E.B., one of Texas' largest grocery chains with over 300 stores throughout the state. Inside, we find the visual trappings that are typical of the large-scale supermarket industry: linoleum tiles, stadium ceilings, florescent lighting, and clearly gridded aisles. At selected H.E.B. stores, however, a new section called Nature's Harvest has been created to serve the needs of a different brand of shopper, a group I am calling the "thoughtful class." This class can be defined by disproportionate access to education, wealth, and transportation. They shop with moral and intellectual intention, putting their money where their mouths are. The section of H.E.B that caters to this type of consumer specializes in organic, "healthy foods" and is visually separate from the managed aesthetics (or lack thereof) governing the rest of the store; track lighting, lowered ceilings, angled aisles, and hardwood floors greet H.E.B.'s Nature's Harvest shoppers. An exotic oasis among the clamor of shopping carts, the natural food section provides the artificial comfort of a local co-operative in the jowls of corporate consumption. For the thoughtful class, shopping is a personal experience in the moral landscape of organics. Imagined cultural ideals of eating healthily while supporting cultural and biological diversity are encouraged within the constructed supermarket space and are reinforced through the commodification of historical and indigenous images. In this paper, I will explore the ways exoticized histories and representations of otherness are deployed on organic cereal boxes to frame the healthy breakfast as an ancient ritual. I will also analyze the ways ethnicities are constructed and commodified on organic brand cereals and the aesthetic construction of opposing histories through nostalgia for an idealized agrarian past.

The Setting

Cereal is a uniquely American food. A walk down the cereal aisle is an experience in American vision. Unlike other sections of the store where items vary by size or shape, the cereal aisle has the same-styled box pressed one against the other. These standardized 8x11 boxes resemble hypercolor stacks of television sets, each a visual talking-head flashing sports stars, cartoons, or slim models. We find a similar, though differently hued, experience in the Nature's Harvest supermarket section. Here, the organic cereal aisle is more like a terraced garden overgrown with images of parrots and colorful, "exotic" people. It is an interwoven expression of subaltern and popular culture. The iconic predominance of the "natural" world speaks to this association of all things green to all things good, and the multi-chromatic array of faces reinforces diversity as the path to a balanced meal. As such, the very nature of the cereal box is performative, intended to attract the attention of the consumer through culturally recognizable and emotionally resonant images.

The cereal box occupies a space, a vision, and a location all at once. After we have purchased the cereal, we are expected to sit down and read the box as part of the morning ritual. In an oddly-sustained, postmodern version of a Norman Rockwell portrait, the timeless place of the American cereal box, organic or not, is atop a breakfast table, next to an open newspaper and a half-gallon of wholesome milk. Indigenous images on organic cereal boxes are used as cultural windows that bring the meals of the "natives" into our home, and essentialize breakfasts across time and place. To more closely regard the commercial reification of the "natural," I will consider one particular brand of organic cereal found in all H.E.B. Nature's Harvest health food sections: Nature's Path's Mesa Sunrise.

Figure 1

The Box

The box of Mesa Sunrise cereal is a rich desert oasis within our organic aisle garden. Orange skies and golden buttes halo a bounty of gathered grains on the front of the box, over which curls the cereal brand name in a font suggestive of petroglyphs. …

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