I don’t always eat cereal for breakfast, but when I do, I prefer muesli.
It was not always thus. I grew up eating sugarsplosions like most North American spawn do. “Healthy” meant corn flakes. But at some point we noticed a cereal our mother had bought called Alpen. It had an explanation on it that it had so much nutrition in it you didn’t need to eat as much. What that really meant was that it wasn’t fluffy flakes; it was rolled oats, nuts, dried fruit, and powdered milk, and it was dense and heavy. We liked it and came to eat it on occasion.
The box also told us it was a kind of thing called muesli. So when I next encountered muesli in other circumstances, I knew what it was. And when was that? When staying in a house of acquaintances in England, wherein the man of the house showed me the breakfast options and referred to their cereal as a “kind of moozly.” I know he knew how to spell it, but the point is that he didn’t say it /mɪwzli/ or /mjuzli/. I have yet to hear anyone else say it like that, but I suspect that’s because I don’t discuss breakfast with starchy Brits too much (they eat their toast cold, for heaven’s sake!).
I have subsequently encountered some version of it on the breakfast buffet in pretty much every European hotel I have ever stayed in (they usually don’t contain powdered milk, but they are served with milk and yogurt). I am sure to have some alongside the cold cuts and cheese. I can also buy quite a few brands of it in the grocery store now. I can also buy granola, but that has lots of extra sugar in it usually. I get enough sugar, thanks. Dried fruit has loads already.
You may look at muesli and think a couple of things: First, that it comes from German and that the ue is ü in the original; second, that it’s Swiss German, as evidenced by the li on the end (many Swiss German words end in i, and li is a suffix). And you’d be right about the second thing. But you’d be off about the first: the original is Müesli. It comes from Mus, ‘stewed fruit’. But its inventor originally just called the thing d’Spys, the Swiss German equivalent of High German die Speise, ‘the dish’.
Its inventor? Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss physician who believed in dietary treatments. He came up with this cereal around the year 1900, when was was around 33 years old. You may have seen the term Bircher muesli. This comes from Birchermüesli, which is the name it was given to succeed d’Spys – which they didn’t necessarily despise, but it was a bit general.
Bircher-Benner’s version had the oats soaked overnight. If you eat muesli now, you probably don’t soak it in advance. It also contained fresh fruit, as opposed to the dried fruit that fills it now. And he served it at the beginning of every meal, rather than as a breakfast.
But so what. I don’t care so much about when he served it, or how he served it, or what it was made with. I am not part of a Bircher-Benner worship cult. He had his ideas about nutrition and health, and they remain – as scientists put it – controversial. I like what his muesli has become; I eat it for what I get now, not what it was in some time past. Anyway, he didn’t invent it out of thin air; he and his wife were served something like it on a hike one time, so he “discovered” it… and of course took the credit for it from his own version.
Are you now expecting this to be be the part where I point out how much like language muesli is? How it’s made of various heterogeneous bits, not always the same from one to another? How what we have now may not be what it once was, but there’s no real reason to hew to the origins if we prefer what we have now? How even those origins are not the real origins, and the real origins are lost in decayed history? How we can’t even entirely agree what to call it and what the rules are? How we may enjoy it more when we travel?
Nah. I don’t need to say all that. You already figured it out. I was just going to mention that every single time I’ve typed muesli in writing this article, I’ve accidentally typed museli first. Which is because of typing habits, yes, of course. But also, I’d like to think, because language is my muse. Or one of them, anyway.