Where, oh where, have childhood's hot cereals gone?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If your mother used to set a bowl of hot cereal in front of you every winter morning to ready you for the rigors of cold weather, she knew what she was doing. It worked then, and it works now.

Yet today, in supermarket cereal sections the hot cereals are overwhelmed by more modern breakfast rivals. Boxes of cold cereals are everywhere, taking on disguises of candy, fruit, vitamins, or fiber.

Breakfasts at a counter and breakfasts in a drink join forces with toaster pastries and frozen waffles, all vying for a share of the start-your-day-right market. What chance is there for the veterans: oatmeal or Cream of Wheat, not to mention Wheatena or Maypo?

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When we were growing up in the '40s, cold cereals were drab. There were cornflakes and wheat flakes for champs. Grape-Nuts, shredded wheat, rice, and marble-hard corn balls called Kix completed the list of what was available.

We knew from fairy tales that hot porridge was the right thing for a snowy morning, and were reminded of this fact every Saturday morning, listening to ''Let's Pretend'' on the radio and singing along with ''Cream of Wheat is so good to eat that we have it every day. . . .''

Well, not every day. But the choice of hot cereals was limited, challenging a mother's ingenuity to provide a good breakfast and maintain interest, although maintaining interest was a secondary consideration.

The breakfast table was a no-frills place of oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, or hot Ralston. Coco Wheats, touting cocoa flavor, appeared in our bowls just once, failing dismally to fulfill its promise.

The king of cereals was oatmeal, with the picture of the jolly Quaker on the curious cylindrical box that was always recycled and used in a variety of Cub Scout or Brownie projects.

The problem with oatmeal was the consistency. One morning it would be runny, slipping off the spoon in gray lumps. The next morning it was too sticky. Then there were times it was so dry the texture of the original oat flakes was preserved but slippery enough to defy real chewing.

Some rare mornings it would be just right - even Goldilocks would have approved - with the proper creaminess and smoothness.

Yet it was this unexpected nature of oatmeal, this daily confrontation with the inconsistent substance in your bowl, that somehow made it interesting.

The straightforward way to eat Cream of Wheat was to stir sugar and cold milk right in with the cereal, and with vigor. This cooled it enough so you could eat it.

A more creative way was to let a puddinglike skin form on the top, then gently pour on milk and sprinkle sugar generously over all. It was a time-consuming art - one that was unappreciated by mothers.

Ralston, declaring itself ''The Whole Wheat Cereal,'' was also something to contend with, although it had its advocates. Doggedly, spoonful by spoonful, you got through it, feeling all the time that you were brushing your teeth with cereal. We doubted that Tom Mix actually ate the stuff, believing instead that it was really intended for his horse, Tony.

Still, these cereals did warm us on cold mornings and, we must admit, made us feel loved. Day after day, the steaming bowls served as a buffer against the cold and the cold realities of grade school.

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