My Queer Kitchen
24 min

Nostalgia and self-care in a bowl: Jennifer E. Crawford’s ‘Treat Cereal’

All this eye-catching, nourishing dish needs are PJs and Saturday morning cartoons

Nostalgia and well-being in a bowl: Jennifer E. Crawford's "Treat Cereal."
Nourishing self-indulgence: Jennifer E. Crawford's "Treat Cereal." Credit: Jennifer E. Crawford

“Treat yourself.” I’m a food creative with a full set of sweet teeth; treats are always at the front of my mind and palate. Usually “treat” means we’re giving ourselves a little reward, something special, an indulgence. But treating ourselves can be—needs to be—so much more nourishing than that, especially now. We can seek treatment, treat someone to dinner, give ourselves a hair treatment, go to a treatment centre, hold boundaries about how we’re treated. All of this “treating” involves measures of attentiveness, nourishment, care.

Treat cereal was one of my dishes in the finale of MasterChef Canada. I’ve made many versions since, hosted a treat cereal pop-up at the Toronto queer resto The Beaver and my pals have even created versions beyond my wildest dreams. There’s complexity lurking behind the technique and palate. I’ve mentioned before that I did a treatment program for trauma at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; Captain Crunch with 10 percent cream was my main squeeze during the nine-week outpatient treatment program. The cereal was nourishing in ways that felt meaningful to me: I accepted (mostly without judgment!) that I didn’t feel like eating or preparing food, so it had to be delicious and easy. I was treating my inner child by giving them a food in delightful abundance, a food I’d experienced with scarcity and shame as a kid.

In a culture that relies heavily on the narrative that the body is a petulant child we’re meant to scold and shame into productivity, to do what our body aches for is powerful. Instead of treating our body like a dopey meat-jalopy that doesn’t know any better, we can trust and honour its knowledge—just as we learn to trust and honour ourselves.

Mental and emotional athleticism through trauma are physically exhausting; maybe you are in the midst of learning this yourself. If you’re exhausted (hypo-arousal), please know that it’s not a personal failure; it’s a normal response to trauma. (So is hyper-arousal, for that matter, if you feel stuck in fast-mo.) I’m sleeping 10 hours a day right now. While this isn’t a new response to trauma for me, this is the first time in my life I haven’t pathologized myself for it. I (mostly) haven’t even tried to berate myself out of my waking slumber with productivity panic. My eyes simply won’t stay open for more than 13-ish hours—like a computer setting, I surrender to sleep mode. I’m not a computer, though: I’m a human with my own trauma history, living through a collectively traumatic time that is more traumatic for some than for others. I’ve learned over the last few years that this sleepiness is coping, a fatigue so mighty as to hold me in place.

Exhaustion keeps me still for as long as possible in a last-ditch effort to minimize chaos. This stillness is exactly the treatment my body needs right now.

What if “treating yourself” meant you were encouraged to identify your sore spots and gently care for them? What would it look like if we had learned as kids how to really treat ourselves? What if we knew how to soothe our terrified inner child during intense times of fear and crises such as… Oh, every day? Growing up, very few of us had the opportunity to learn how to heal, how to treat ourselves. Any day is a good day to start.

I’m still learning how to do this, even as I’m pushing 40. It’s the trying that feels powerful right now, even when I miss the mark. And how might we treat others? I hope we’re able to do both with compassion and curiosity. We’re all living our trauma responses in real time, and food is my point of entry for creating gentle and joyful ways to treat myself through chaos and fear. Some days I feel up to executing a from-scratch meal. Maybe I even manage to write an article and some emails. Other days I don’t: I read a zillion recipes and eat leftover pie crusts with cheese and milk. Both are important.

For me, treat cereal brings about all kinds of feelings related to abundance, care and nourishment. Artisanal treat cereal is Sugar Bear’s and Toucan Sam’s foray into drag: a campy nod to the joys of excess, reimagined nostalgic pleasure, delightfully and deliciously queer. When I make it from scratch, it’s like giving myself a gift of time and creation that gives my vigilant nervous system a signal to relax. Making treat cereal is an involved and meditative process, one I try to align with Fridays so it’s ready for my Saturday morning cartoons. Maybe it’ll give you a fun little creative reprieve and chance to express yourself, too. Here’s a recipe to encourage the centering of your own favourite recipes, tastes and nourishment so that this treat(ment) is as unique as you are.

Check out Jennifer E. Crawford’s latest cooking demonstration below, where they whip up a version of treat cereal made with Nova Scotia oatcakes and coffee-infused milk.

Tea and a Biscuit Treat Cereal

This recipe is based on an afternoon of munching on those jelly-in-the-centre shortbread sandwich cookies paired with a cup of orange pekoe tea. You can modify it to include your own favourite cookie recipe, flavour the meringue marshmallows if you like—even change up the seasoning of the milk depending on what feels most like a comforting treat to you! It’s multiple recipes and techniques, brought together to create the ultimate treat cereal. Pairs well with Saturday morning cartoons and pyjamas.

Meringue kisses

Ingredients
2 egg whites
½ cup white sugar
¼ tsp vanilla or other flavouring (if using)
Food colouring (if using)

Method
Preheat the oven to 200°F. With an electric mixer on high, whisk two egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add in sugar, one tablespoon at a time so that the sugar dissolves. Once all the sugar is in, add vanilla. Or omit. Or try another flavouring, such as a couple drops of almond extract, butter flavouring or mint extract! If colouring your meringues, add a drop or two of colouring now. Allow to whisk on high for another 4 minutes.

Using a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip (or just cut off the end of a ziplock bag), pipe the meringues onto a parchment-lined baking sheet at 1 cm in diameter. For colour-striped meringues, paint the inside of the piping bag with a stripe of gel food colouring. Bake at 200°F for 40 minutes. Then turn off heat and leave it in the oven for one hour.

Shortbread cookies

Feel free to substitute a half-batch of your favourite cookies! Keep in mind these will be very small, so something like chocolate chips would have to be cut up, or use mini-sized. Any cookie can be cereal when it’s small.

Ingredients
½ cup butter
¼ cup icing sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
⅔ cup all-purpose flour

Method
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Whip butter on high in a stand mixer until fluffy. Add in icing sugar, cornstarch and flour. Beat on low for 1 minute, then high for 2 minutes. Pop into the fridge for 10 minutes.

Take 1/3 of the dough and roll with your hands into a long uniform tube, about 1 cm in diameter. With a paring knife, cut into roughly 1cm rounds. Arrange on a baking sheet at least 1 cm apart. Repeat for the remaining dough. Bake at 300°F for 13 minutes, until pale golden on the bottom. Allow to cool completely.

Puffed rice 

Ingredients and equipment
1 cup canola (or neutral) oil
½ cup brown rice (that’s just what we have and I like; feel free to experiment!)
Sieve
Thermometer

Method
Check out this helpful tutorial for oil-puffing rice—it’s the method I use. Arrange a large sieve over a pot or large bowl. In a small pot over med-high heat, bring the oil to 360°F. If you don’t have a thermometer, this will take about 5 minutes. You can test by tossing in a rice grain to see if it’s ready—if it is, it will puff almost immediately. When it’s ready, pour in the rice all at once. Within about 30 seconds—and almost definitely less than a minute—nearly all the grains will have puffed! Very carefully strain by pouring the hot oil and rice through the sieve positioned over another large pot or bowl. Transfer the puffed rice to some paper towels so that they can drain and stay crispy.

Tea-steeped milk

Again, feel free to steep the milk with whatever you like—other teas, dried or fresh herbs, popped popcorn, malt powder, season with cocoa, cinnamon—heck, you can even smoke the milk (if you have a smoking gun).

Ingredients
2 cups 10 percent cream
1 tbsp white sugar
A pinch of salt
1 bag orange pekoe tea
¼ tsp vanilla

Method
Heat cream, white sugar and a pinch of salt until just simmering. Turn off heat and add tea bag. Allow to steep for 3 minutes. Remove the tea bag and stir to ensure sugar has dissolved. Pour into a heat-proof jar, add vanilla and allow to cool overnight in the fridge.

Other ingredients

1 pint fresh raspberries (or whatever fruit you have around and would like!)

To serve
In a coupe, layer the cookies, berries, meringues and then rice. Pour tea-steeped milk over immediately before serving. Makes 4 dessert-sized coupes (or one very big mixing bowl breakfast to pair with Saturday morning cartoons).