Brock About Town: Melk, milking this Cedar Rapidian’s love of Crunch Berries

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Melk Diner and Cereal Bar, 116 E Washington St, Iowa City. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Hi, my name is Audrey, and I’m addicted to cereal. Not just any cereal, mind you, but the tooth-achingly sweet variety advertised by manic-depressive tropical birds during Saturday morning cartoons — the kind that gives you just enough energy to make it to second period before a massive blood sugar crash leaves you shaking and sweating like a 12-year-old junkie.

Like most addictions, mine is rooted in childhood trauma. My mother believed that breakfast was the most important meal of the day and should therefore be the least enjoyable. On cold winter mornings back in the early aughts, she’d make me choke down a bowl of Red River before sending me off to school. (For those of you not in the know, Red River is birdseed disguised as oatmeal. It looks and tastes like something that would be endorsed by a late 1800s fire-and-brimstone preacher for preventing impure thoughts. It is soul-crushing.)

As soon as humanly possible, I got away from those dirty hippies and went off to college. I found in the campus dining hall a spiritual home, one which, unlike my actual home, had 10 different varieties of cereal on tap at every meal. I spent my first semester at the University of Iowa face down in a bowl of two percent. Those were dark days. For the last five years, I’ve abstained for the sake of my pancreas. But when I heard about Melk, the new cereal bar on Washington Street in Iowa City, I knew I was ready to throw it all away in the name of journalism.

“Cereal bars” are the sort of food trend that can’t come to Iowa City fast enough, because they justify our collective decision not to move to New York when we had the chance. Who needs the big city when you can walk down Clinton Street and find both froyo and gourmet cupcakes? Melk, in particular, is purposefully urbane, with its minimalist menu, industrial décor and waiters wearing impractically small beanies. On the website, its proprietor instructs patrons to “come thru.” There doesn’t appear to be a cut-off age limit. Maybe touch up your roots first, just in case.

Melk’s plentiful cereal wall. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

While Melk does offer a variety of other breakfast and lunch options, its centerpiece is the enormous wall of cereal boxes behind the bar. They have everything from granny standbys like Honey Bunches of Oats to cereals so sugary it’s hard to believe they actually exist, like Sour Patch Kids. Those were tempting, but ultimately, I knew there was nothing to do but get back to my roots. You see, I grew up in Cedar Rapids, known to one and all as the City of Five Smells. Most of those smells emit from the Quaker Oats plant downtown, and while no one likes the stale, yeasty aroma of grain processing that hits you like a ton of bricks when you step outside in the morning, the plant has given us one gift: Crunch Berry day. The smell of artificial fruit flavors hangs so heavy in the air, you can practically see it. It’s the best part of growing up in Cedar Rapids.

So, I ordered a bowl of Crunch Berries. The first bite was bliss. It was like going home for Christmas and using the body spray you wore in middle school: terrifyingly sweet and reminiscent of beautiful, cringey memories. Immediately, I made plans to move into Melk, pitch a tent in the kitchen and eat nothing but breakfast cereal for the rest of my life.

The second bite instantly gave me a headache.

Like your first real hangover and bringing earplugs to a concert, getting too old for cereal is one of those aging milestones that happens a lot sooner than you’d think.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 257.

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