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Rice Krispies

Nina Furstenau: You’re listening to Canned Peaches from KBIA. I’m Nina Mukerjee Furstenau.

We’re trekking through farms, forests and faraway kitchens exploring five ingredients. Come with us - to discover how communities locally and globally are intertwined through food.

Gilster-Mary Lee food manufacturer in McBride, Missouri makes affordable store-brand products - from pie crusts to crispy rice cereal.
Lauren Hines-Acosta
Gilster-Mary Lee food manufacturer in McBride, Missouri makes affordable store-brand products - from pie crusts to crispy rice cereal.


[sounds of kids freaking out about rice crispies]

Kid 2: What if we made another type of rice crispy but we called it waterfall crispies?

Kid: What if we added extra sugar to it?

Kid 3: Wait sugar fall crispies!

*children cheer in excitement*

Kid 3: And we dump a bag of sugar into it! That’d be delicious!

*children cheer again*

Nina Furstenau: Those kids are part of Camp Fire Heartland in Kansas City. It’s an organization that supports youth — and helped invent rice crispy treats. I got to make some with them. And for many of the kids, it was the first time they tried the classic dessert.

The story of rice is a story of transformation. Rice can start out in fields in the India of my memories and end up as a breakfast cereal, and eventually rice crispy treats creating a place for themselves in our collective childhood memories.

Nina Furstenau: Producer Yasha Mikołajczak is joining us in the studio. They reported on this episode.

Yasha Mikołajczak: Hey Nina. So, okay, rice has been around for millennia. There are so many directions we could go with this. And we’ve been all over the state looking at rice in its different stages.

But I’m curious: What made you want to look into Rice Crispies?

Nina Furstenau: Growing up visiting India, our family home was/is surrounded by rice fields. And I’ve been SO FASCINATED by how rice goes from those fields to crackling in my cereal bowl. And rice crispy treats are just an extension of that and our culture. I was really just fascinated by the transformational aspect of it all.

Yasha Mikołajczak: Yeah, I remember when I had my first rice crispy treat….

Nina Furstenau: Alright, so let’s go back to the beginning. I know rice likely originated in Asia thousands of years ago. So, how did the crop get here to the United States?

Yasha Mikołajczak: Well, archeologists have found rice grains in sites dating back to 7000 BC in the lower and middle Yantze River Valley of China. But rice wasn’t used in the US until the 1600s. It was such a popular crop that it came here in a bunch of ways. We see rice coming through the Carolinas in the 1600s as part of the slave trade. And the people who were enslaved with rice-growing knowledge were in demand as they made more and more planters rich with the crop. When the Ojibwe community arrived to what is now Minnesota in the 1600s, they relied on the wild rice native to North America — which is a different species.

Nina Furstenau: So when did rice become an actual industry here?

Yasha Mikołajczak: Rice took off commercially from the 1720s to 1860 when no other commodity was remotely as important to the region (the Low Country) as rice produced by manual forced labor. Favorite foods emerged from the scraps of the process, like grits—before they were made from corn, grits were originally made from the tiny bits of rice that were the by-product of rice processing. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th century, when rice mills and dryers became much larger, rice continued on its rise in diets. Arkansas and Missouri are the some of the largest producers in the country because they’re in the Mississippi River floodplain.

Nina Furstenau: Alright, but didn’t rice cereal become a thing before that?

Yasha Mikołajczak: Yes. An early version of granola designed to be soaked in milk was made in 1863. And then cereals like corn flakes, puffed wheat and rice cereal started showing up in the early 1900s.

But! before we get to rice crispies, we have to talk about …. the food shot from guns.

Nina Furstenau: Excuse me?

Yasha Mikołajczak: Oh yes. Botanist Alexander P. Anderson invented puffed cereal in 1901. At the time, he was working at the New York Botanical Garden. He was trying to figure out how much moisture was in a piece of starch by heating it up in a sealed glass tube. Then he started experimenting with grains.

Nina Furstenau: Wait, so how does that work?

Yasha Mikołajczak: So a puffing gun is really any sealed container. It has to be heated up and continually rotate with the grain inside. This allows the pressure to build. When you then release that pressure, the water within the grain is heated. That heated water turns to steam. That steam is released and expands the grain into a puff. The technology is like popcorn, but most grains aren’t strong enough to stay intact after being puffed.

People weren’t all that excited about any of this – puffed anything - until Alexander Anderson demonstrated his puffing gun at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. It caught the eye of the Quaker Oats corporation, and they started marketing it as food shot from guns.

Nina Furstenau: But they’re not actually shot from a gun, right? What does that even look like?

Yasha Mikołajczak: Sadly, there is no super cool rice shooting pistol. But there is a puffing machine at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn. The museum gave the public a demonstration in 2013 at New York City’s Summer Streets festival.

[Sounds of puffing gun demonstration]

Nina Furstenau: Okay, now that I’m watching this video, it looks like a giant mesh cage and the grain explodes from the ceiling.

Yasha Mikołajczak: Yes, the actual puffing mechanism is on the roof of the cage. Someone has to be on top to release the pressure. The cage catches the grain.

Canned Peaches producer Lauren Hines-Acosta spoke with Dave Arnold about this machine. He’s the founder of the Museum of Food and Drink.

Let’s listen in to their conversation.

Dave Arnold: “So you, you wait for it, it comes up around as it's coming up around you turn off the motor and you engage the brake and you point the door down. Then you take the big pipe and you go like it's like the it's like a super heavy baseball bat. You know, it's about yay long. And you go bang and you hit this little like arm and that trips the door open the door immediately goes like wings open and BOOM…”

[sound of puffing gun going off]

“…and then like it comes out in like a big cone of puff cereal so you have to have some catching otherwise it just goes everywhere and it makes us big concussive awesome concussive force.”

Lauren Hines-Acosta: In your opinion, you know, how does cooked rice connect people if at all?

Dave Arnold: I think what's interesting about ready to eat breakfast cereal in general, right, is that it's one of those things that you can't help but be exposed to in the United States… we all have this thing in our background, even if we don't like it, you know? I mean, some of us, like, what we remember about it is our parents wouldn't let us have the sugary breakfast cereals or they would let us have it, you know what I mean? So there's this thing that we kind of all share. And it came to prominence as part of a health fad, and then became one of the early food advertising behemoths that was advertised towards kids. So it's just got a bunch of layers of meaning for us here in America.

Nina Furstenau: Yeah it seems breakfast cereal is a big part of childhood here in the United States. When did you first have rice crispies, Yasha?

Yasha Mikołajczak: *answers*

One key thing to keep in mind is that puffed rice and crispy rice are very different. Puffed rice is just the grain itself puffed. It’s very plain and styrofoamy. But crispy rice is a rice-based dough that is baked and puffed. So you’re not actually eating individual grains of rice when you eat crispy rice cereal.

*Yasha talks about her experience*

Kellogg’s came out with Rice Krispies in 1928. That’s 24 years after Alexander’s demonstration at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Nina Furstenau: So, I really wanted to see how crispy rice is made.

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau holds puffed rice at Gilster-Mary Lee, a food manufacturer in McBride, Missouri.
Lauren Hines-Acosta
Nina Mukerjee Furstenau holds puffed rice at Gilster-Mary Lee, a food manufacturer in McBride, Missouri.

[sounds of a factory rumble below Nina]

We went to Gilster-Mary Lee, which is a food manufacturer. It’s in McBride, Missouri. And they make affordable store-brand products - from pie crusts to crispy rice cereal.

President Tom Welge and assistant plant superintendent Danny Bohnert gave us a tour.

Gilster-Mary Lee President Tom Welge, Plant Superintendent Danny Bohnert and Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
Lauren Hines-Acosta
Gilster-Mary Lee President Tom Welge, Plant Superintendent Danny Bohnert and Nina Mukerjee Furstenau talk about crispy rice cereal and how it is made

Yasha Mikołajczak: It was so hot. And very loud. But you were having the best time.

[sounds of going into the plant] “it takes 6 hours for a grain of rice…”

Tom Welge: It’s dry.

Nina Furstenau: You can really feel the difference. Really very warm and also just a little- well it's crisp.

Janet Saidi: It's crisp!

Nina Furstenau: It's crisp! Can I taste it? Pretty crunchy.

[sounds from factory] “man compared to that room, it’s calm in here”

Nina Furstenau: Man, I think any place that makes pie crust is like really a happy place happy about when pie crust come off a line I mean waiting for that fill in you know.

Danny Bohnert: So here's fresh marshmallows, and fresh crisp rice for you. So we sell a couple of restaurant customers, crisp rice and marshmallows and there's a restaurant chain focused on pasta. They have these brick size, Rice Krispie treats as a dessert that they sell. It's one of their best items. So we provide them the crisp rice and the marshmallows and they make the treats there.

Janet Saidi: Who’s that?

Danny: I can't tell you. *laughs*…

Nina: So I'm just sad that I don't get to make them with you.

Danny Bohnert: Oh, I've never made them.

Nina Furstenau: Really? Oh, Danny, after all this time? 30 years of this plant.

Tom Welge: He gets judged on a lot of things, but that's not one of them.

Janet Saidi: Do you have anything to add?

Tom Welge: I think we do feel good about the stuff that we do here because we're providing lower cost alternatives to consumers and still have a high quality. I think, we became aware of how important our business was during the pandemic. And because these were the kind of staples that people were relying on dollar pantries when they weren't going out to restaurants or other food service channels. We sold a lot of cereal, a lot of mac and cheese pancake mix, comfort foods, and we all needed comfort.”

President Tom Welge and Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
Lauren Hines-Acosta
President Tom Welge talks with Nina Mukerjee Furstenau about how Gilster-Mary Lee makes everything from pie crusts to crispy rice cereal

[Sounds of leaving and walking out of factory]

Yasha Mikołajczak: I loved watching you.

Nina Furstenau: I'm such a nerd when it comes to this sort of thing.

Yasha Mikołajczak: They way you’re walking out with like three boxes when you got hot off the press

Nina Furstenau: I know I mean I'm telling you this is valuable commodity here.

Yasha Mikołajczak: And you got marshmallows, too.

Nina Furstenau: Well that was sweet of them literally.

Yasha Mikołajczak: It’s a whole DIY. Make it yourself

Nina Furstenau: I know very exciting.

Yasha Mikołajczak: What was your favorite part of it?

Nina Furstenau: You know I really enjoy seeing the different stages in the sounds and the textures and feeling the warm, crisp rice in my hand and the smell of that factory smelled awesome. Didn't make you just want to have breakfast. It made me want to just have breakfast.

Yasha Mikołajczak: When we had the second handful of rice, I got pulled all the way back to my sleepaway camp where we used to get these little plastic tubs of cereal. There was honey, gram toasters, and fruity Loops. It was like off brand stuff. And then specifically, that tasted exactly like the rice krispies we had. And I just got flash backs to it.

Nina Furstenau: What's funny is I don't even eat Rice Krispies cereal all that often. But it still has this tactile memory. I think a lot of people would have that tactile memory, at least that I know of. They've had Rice Krispies cereal, or crispy rice cereal sometime in their life. And maybe in childhood. And it takes you right there.

Yasha Mikołajczak: Yeah, exactly. Rice crispies and rice crispy treats seem to be a sort of traditional recipe and many people have their own spin. Scotcheroos are a midwestern chocolatey version. Others add sprinkles. The basic recipe of rice crispy treats includes butter, rice cereal and marshmallows. But it’s based off an old recipe that uses puffed wheat and molasses.

Nina Furstenau: Oh, interesting. We wanted to learn more about the history of crispy rice treats. So, we sent producer Lauren Hines-Acosta to talk with Suzanne Corbett. She is a food historian based in St. Louis.

Suzanne Corbett: It's all about tradition again. It, it connects generations, particularly if it's an older recipe like rice krispies. It's something we all can remember having for the first time perhaps let me see it's it's when when whenever you have a recipe like a rice crispy, it's something that food in general should it should make you smile, feel good, feel satisfied. And it's those experiences shared and I think that's what a recipe like a rice crispy does. And it's a recipe and a food that ridges generations of shared experiences that you can enjoy in the now. And that's what makes food history. Fabulous.

Lauren Hines-Acosta: Yeah, what do you remember the first time you had a rice krispie treat?

Suzanne Corbett: I think I do. It was at a church event. If I recall, it was like one of those Vacation Bible School things and, and it was one of those treats that came in in the nine by 13 aluminum pants. And I never saw anything like it before in my life. I never knew anything about marshmallow cream. And just remember that it was delightfully sticky and sweet and had that little goofiness to it when you pulled it apart. And you could enjoy it in the summertime. And you didn't have to worry about it melting or, or anything like that. It was just a delight.

Lauren Hines-Acosta: Yes, oh my gosh. I think I remember like the first time I had some, I think it was either my mom or my grandma made it. But it was like, yeah, it was like the Rice Krispies cereal. And then it's like, the marshmallow. And then she did something with like melted butter on top of it that just made it like 10, like super good. And I feel like I've never been able to like match that again.

Suzanne Corbett: Well, that's because you're missing a key ingredient, which is what I call grandma juice, or mom's juice. You know, it's through teaching, cooking, as I have through the years, I've discovered you can take a single recipe and give it to five people. And you'll get five different things just because of the technique and touch. And the tools you use to make it it's all going to have its own little special twist to it. It'll be similar, almost identical, almost.

No, that's so true. That's so it. Oh, my gosh.”

Lauren Hines-Acosta: It seems like like hip finding, as I do these episodes. Looking into this food, it's really just people kind of rediscovering what's on their plates and reading into that food and, and the history that comes with it.

Suzanne Corbett: Well, you can follow what's on your plate of rice or whatever you have on your plate, and find a link to, to a people to a tradition. That is that connects you to the past that you can then use to help build a future on. And with food. That's particularly true because with rice or wheat or any crop that you have, the idea is to just not use that particular crop to feed yourself but also to preserve it for the future, or enjoyment for other generations along with the traditions tied to that item. And rice has a myriad of traditions that you can embrace.”

Nina Furstenau: I love that. Like I said at the beginning of this episode, I’m really interested in how we take food and transform it in so many ways.

Yasha Mikołajczak: But we still don’t know!: How did rice crispy treats come about anyway?

Nina Furstenau: The recipe as we know it was developed by Mildred Day who was a Kellogg’s employee. And Camp Fire Heartland — the youth organization we learned about earlier — reached out to Kellogg’s for fundraising ideas. So, Mildred brought them the rice crispy treat recipe to help the Camp Fire kids sell the treats door to door.

[sounds from Campfire]

Nina Furstenau: I wanted to try some, so I went with producer Janet Saidi – we drove out there to make some rice crispies with the Camp Fire kids. Erin Balleine and her husband Johnathan Overall let us come on their first Saturday Club meeting of the season. Erin is the executive director of Camp Fire Heartland.

[sounds of starting the event] “Hi, everybody. Are you guys ready to make rice krispie? Treats? Yeah. Awesome…”

Kid: Why do they call it the rice rice crispy treats?

Janet Saidi: “That’s a good question…is there a name you'd like better?

Kid: I don't know. I can't really think

Kid 2: I’d say yummy.

Janet Saidi: Yummy. Yummy what?

Kid 2: Yummy crispy treats.

Nina Furstenau: I like that too.

Kid: Are they even made of rice at all?

Janet Saidi: This actually is rice. Nina and I went to a factory where they cooked the rice and made it crispy.

Kid: Oh, that's why you call it Rice Krispie treats.

Nina Furstenau: Janet deserves a heart to stirring these marshmallows. And I'm telling you these folks that campfire expert stirs Look at him go

Erin Balleine: I'm gonna have really strong biceps at the end of this

Nina Furstenau: Who knew marshmallow sticks so much stirring I mean I didn't I didn't remember that

Erin Balleine: I know. I promise we didn't freeze these last night

[sound of stirring noises]

Kid: Hey why does it why don't actual Rice Krispie treats have a sign that says campfire on it? They should do that. They should put that on rice crispy wrappers.


Nina Furstenau: Oh my goodness, those kids are cute. After we finished making rice crispy treats, I got to talk more with Erin. She told me she’s worked with farmworkers and has done a lot with food equity. That’s partly what led her to Camp Fire.

Nina Furstenau: Do you have any memories around? Rice Krispie treats in your family community or others, other groups?

Erin Balleine: I think it's just an essential piece of there's, there's, there's equity to it. Every kid gets a dinner, whether whether they would get a dinner at home or not get a dinner at home. And we make sure that it's good food that people that we've partnered with, it's called Total man. And it's, it's, it's handmade, warm, hot, really good, really good food. And that's just such a critical piece of this.

Nina Furstenau: I like the idea of food equity with your programming. That's that's really, it just takes it to another level when you when you're thinking about it that way. Yeah. Even without, I mean, without even programming around it. That's what food does, right?

Erin Balleine: It does. It does. It creates an equal playing field. And you know, when you're hungry, you're grumpy. And so just making sure that I mean, it's more than just food, it's more than just eating, it's more than a full tummy. It's it is being there with your friend or, you know, when we're providing the food, you know, I'll not that fun, because I'll give you my like chocolate milk, you know, all the sudden there's these interactions that happen with kids and around food skills are learned at the table. But yeah, just that sense of community and family and laughter that comes with just sitting at the table with somebody over a meal.

Erin Balleine: Was it fun to have them here listening to all your stories about campfire Rice Krispie treats?

Kids: Yes.

Erin Balleine: Yes, you're gonna say thank you. Ready? 1-2-3

Kids: Thank you!!

Nina Furstenau: Thank you guys, it’s really been fun

Nina Furstenau: Rice, like many of the foods we explore, changes based on culture and community. We change it. Together. The transformational power of food connects us to our past, and our future.

Canned Peaches is produced by Lauren Hines-Acosta, Janet Saidi, and me, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau, with production help from Yasha Mikołajczak and Alex Cox.

The series is written by Lauren Hines-Acosta and Janet Saidi.

Our editor is Aaron Hay.

Thanks to Yasha Mikołajczak for co-hosting this episode with me.

Canned Peaches is a project of the Missouri News Network at the Missouri School of Journalism, Vox Magazine, Harvest Public Media. And KBIA.

Our engagement and outreach team is led by Jessica Vaughn Martin, Kassidy Arena, and Professor Kara Edgerson.

Special thanks to Harvest Public Media’s Maria Altman, Vox Magazine’s Heather Isherwood, and the Missouri School of Journalism’s Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies Professor Kathy Kiely.

Canned Peaches is produced with support from Missouri Humanities and the Missouri Humanities Trust Fund.

On Canned Peaches we’re exploring how we’re all connected through the food on our plates.

For more episodes, go to KBIA dot org.

And you can see more stories from Canned Peaches at VoxMagazine.com.

I’m Nina Mukerjee Furstenau. Thanks for listening. See you next time.

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau is a journalist, author, and editor of the FoodStory book series for the University of Iowa Press. She was a Fulbright Global research scholar (2018-19), is on the board of directors for Media for Change, and has won the MFK Fisher Book Award and the Grand Prize Award for Culture/Culinary Writing from Les Dames d'Escoffier International, a Kansas Notable Book award, and more. Nina hosts Canned Peaches, a podcast created with KBIA, The Missouri School of Journalism, The Missouri Humanities Council, and Harvest Public Media
Yasha Mikolajczak is a junior at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Janet Saidi is a producer and professor at KBIA and the Missouri School of Journalism.
Lauren Hines is a reporter and producer at KBIA.
Alex Cox is a Junior in the Missouri School of Journalism. They're a reporter and producer for KBIA.