Apple Jacks are a cereal of mystery. They are small, sugary Cheerio-like loops that grace many a breakfast table, and yet, a lingering question remains. Apple Jacks taste absolutely nothing like apples. What, then, are they supposed to taste like? Apple juice concentrate, dried apples, and cinnamon are listed among the ingredients, but the pink and green rings seem a neighboring galaxy away from the traditional combo of apple and cinnamon found in apple pie or apple brown betty. What is that flavor? Maybe Apple Jacks taste otherworldly because they were born in the atomic age. The Apple Jacks idea was generated in the company’s Battle Creek, Michigan headquarters and first put into production on September 1, 1965, deep in the middle of the Space Race years. After a successful test market in Boston, national distribution started in mid-1966 on this multi-grain cereal, and although it’s had a rotating cast of forgettable mascots, it has never lost its bright green box, which makes it easy to find on the ever more crowded cereal aisle.

The 1980s were a golden era for children’s breakfast cereal. Or at least they were for me. Marketing started to be aimed at children in mass (i.e. “Transformers, More than meets the eye,” which was perfect for a “Toys ‘R’ us kid”), and cereal production went into high gear, exploding with marshmallows, color, and variety.

As the child of a coupon clipper, we had all the name brands in our household, but by far, Kellogg’s was king. My mother also was also an enthusiastic saver of labels and box bottoms for rebates, so I went to school with a Kellogg’s pencil case, had Honey Smacks and Rice Krispie puzzles, and to this day, own a set of hard plastic cereal bowls emblazoned with the 1980s version of the characters and the words “the Best to You each morning” on each rim.

Yet Apple Jacks reigned supreme. Delicately tinted pink (the green didn’t arrive until 1999) with speckles of red, these rings seemed a part of the Care Bears and Lisa Frank pastels of my youth. Their sugary, frosted coating emitted a distinctive Apple Jacks scent that was, for most of those years, mingled in memory with Strawberry Shortcake’s fragrant hair or scratch and sniff stickers. Maybe it was the taste, maybe it was the scent, the memory of mornings at the dining room table in front of the picture window, or hell, all that and the pencil case propaganda too, but my heart belonged to the pink cereal. 

The Apple Jacks flavor is still baffling, yet instantly recognizable. And Kellogg’s wants to keep it proprietary. I asked.

“Oh it’s Apple Jacks,” responded multiple James Beard-nominated pastry chef Cynthia Wong of Butcher and Bee in Charleston, S.C., whom I persuaded to taste the cereal blindfolded. “What’s the flavor?” I asked. “Besides sugar?” she responded. “Maybe some cinnamon, some malt syrup. Definitely sugar.”

It’s that undefinable quality that is exactly what Pastry Chef James Wroblewski of Habitat in the Fairmont Hotel in Pittsburgh wanted for his “Apple a Day” dessert featuring Calvados custard, caramel soaked apples, Apple Jacks ice cream, freeze dried apple crunch, and a crisp apple slaw.

For each 4-gallon batch, his kitchen soaks 2.5 pounds of Apple Jacks (no off brand for Wroblewski) in hot cream before straining it through a chinois, resulting in little color but the occasional red speck that makes it through the screen.

“I can’t explain the flavor but there is definite recognition by the guests, and I wanted to have a little fun, have an adventurous, surprise note in all these amazing, fresh apple flavors,” he explains. “I always loved the milk left by the cereal, and when my nephew comes over, we play video games and eat it.”

In the current climate of distinctively “unprecedented” and “uncharted territory,” discussing Apple Jacks and the flavored milk in the bottom of the bowl seems like a useless trip down nostalgia lane. But nostalgia lane is a powerful path. Nostalgia provides us the good old days that never were, a mix of “yes, buts” tinted by time, twisted a bit by memory, and contrasted against the reality of the now that will one day go through the same machine, both individually and collectively. Wroblewski watches how a guest’s face lights up in recognition at the Apple Jacks flavor, and he shares that same connection with his nephew. It’s fun and feels good. Connecting with someone, either through food or otherwise, is heady stuff, but beware the only connection be that of a sugar rush. I purchased a box of Apple Jacks for this story, and my memory was better than my experience since I was hungry by 9:30. But the bowl sure was pretty.