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Fork in the Road: Breakfasts of champions

With Olympic athletes inspiring us, take a tip from some timeless champs
AltasInsult_jbcurio_flickr_courtesyofThe DailyMirror_April_2_1953
An ad appearing in the April 2, 1953 edition of The Daily Mirror.

When we were kids growing up in Edmonton and somebody wanted to bolster you up—say the morning of your elementary school’s track and field meet, and you were your team’s star broad jumper, or mom and dad had an “all-dayer” planned at Pigeon Lake—the call to arms was, “Eat your Wheaties!”

Everybody knew that Wheaties was the “Breakfast of Champions.” Somehow, the branding had burned itself into our collective consciousness. So when parents, aunties, uncles, you name it, urged us, or anyone who might be considered a “98-pound weakling” to eat our Wheaties, we knew it was code for “get strong.” 

The famous “98-pound weakling” trope, however, had nothing to do with cereal. That came from one of the longest-running, most memorable ad campaigns ever in comic books, TV and more. And it was all thanks to the one and only Charles Atlas, the legendary American bodybuilder. Born Angelo Siciliano, in 1892 in the small town of Acri, Italy, Charles Atlas was originally trained as a leather worker. Once he landed in America he was too poor to join the YMCA, but ultimately he parlayed his “muscleman” physique into a body-building empire worth millions.

In an old comic book ad similar to the one accompanying this article, Atlas recounted the true story. According to him, he had sand kicked in his face at the beach by a bully, and he weighed 97 pounds when it happened. Just in case you’re interested, you can still buy his program today. 

Now, when I think about it, “Eat your Wheaties!” was a weird exhortation in Alberta. Wheaties have never been sold in Canada! So how on Earth could we eat them if they never ended up in our grocery cart? Never mind—we still loved the “Breakfast of Champions” concept, which, like Charles, has stood the test of time. 

Wheaties, now a General Mills product, started life as Washburn’s Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes in 1921. Since 1934 they’ve featured some 850-plus champion athletes on the front, including dozens of Olympic medallists and even two Canadians—Elvis Stojko and Mario Lemieux. To celebrate their 100th anniversary last year, the distinctive orange/red cereal box featured Muhammad Ali, who first made “the box” in 1999—now sold out on eBay.

With all the amazing athletes bounding their way through the Winter Olympics right now, I especially think of the great Canadians, and the great locals taking part. Too many to name them all, but you know I’m thinking of the Marielle and Broderick Thompson's; the Trinity Ellis’s and Natalie Corless’s; the Mark McMorris’s, Max Parrot's and Jack Crawford's. I bet they all know how important a good breakfast—a breakfast of champions—is. 

Search for what they eat, and you’ll get eggs, lots of eggs; oatmeal, and yogurt; and, yes, peanut butter, too. And lots of each. Endurance athletes, like cross-country skiers, can burn through 3,500 calories a day, so a hearty breakfast is key. 

In light of the above, here’s my all-time favourite recipe for granola—a homemade breakfast of champions that’s so good and easy to make it’s been around the world and back. (That’s only according to where some of my friends live who’ve asked for the recipe.) Full of fibre, nutrients and protein, I dare say, it’s even better than Wheaties. Hey, I Iived in the States for years and, yes, I tried it. 

My recipe card is so yellowed and faded, it looks like an original Charles Atlas ad. Alas, I can’t tell you where it originally came from, but it has a very good, authentic provenance, namely straight from the heart of granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing hippie-land—California, early 1970s.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, why not whip up some for your favourite loved ones? It’s easy to bag or box for a gift, and much cheaper than those tiny bags of decent commercial granola that go for nearly 20 bucks. Plus it’s as good over ice cream or fruit salad as it is for breakfast. 

We all might not turn into another Charles Atlas but with a good, nutritious breakfast under our belts, we’ll be on our way to becoming champions.

BTW, if you’re ever in New York’s Washington Square, check out the monumental arch. Charles Atlas was the model for George Washington as president, also known as Washington at Peace—something we could all use more of today. 

GB’s crunchy granola

Mix together in a big bowl:

4 cups rolled oats

1 1/2 c. unsweetened, untoasted coconut (shredded, ribbons, or otherwise)

1 c. wheat germ

1 c. [or more] chopped nuts—whatever you like: walnuts, almonds, pecans. Not salted or roasted.

1 c. raw sunflower seeds

1/2 c. flax seed (I partially grind mine in an old coffee grinder)

1/2 c. bran—wheat or oat, as you like

1 c. ground roasted soybeans (if you can find any. They do add protein, but I don’t usually bother.)

NOTE: Instead of the flax seed and bran you can substitute 1 c. of Sunny Boy or any similar dry porridge. 

In a small saucepan or glass container, depending on whether you’re going to heat it on the stovetop or in a microwave, mix:

1/2 c. oil (I use just over 1/4 c.—a good organic sunflower oil)

1/2 c. honey or maple syrup (the latter is easier to mix in)

1/2-1 tsp. vanilla

Once it’s gently heated, pour over your dry mixture and blend well. Stir in extras as you like—raisins, chopped dates, dried cranberries.

Lightly oil 2 cookie sheets. Spread evenly and bake at 325 F for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until nicely browned. When it’s cool, store in an airtight container.  

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who applauds athletes everywhere who have overcome countless challenges to chase their gold. 

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