Remember party mix? That random assortment of corn/wheat/rice cereal, nuts, pretzels, Worcestershire sauce, butter and seasoned salt? Perhaps you know it by its more common branded name, Chex Mix, based on the cereal brand that actually "invented" it. Whatever you call it, the crunchy, salty mix knows no boundaries or state lines.
I was first introduced to it by friends from Iowa, which made me think it was a wholesome snack from the heartland of America's Midwest. Turns out I wasn't exactly wrong — the history of Chex cereals begins with the Ruston Purina Company (yes, the same Purina as dog food) in St. Louis, Missouri. Along with pet food, they also produced animal feed (which they called "chow") and food for human consumption.
The original Chex cereal debuted in the late 1930s, but there's no recorded version of the party recipe until 1952, when it unceremoniously debuted on both the wheat and rice Chex cereal boxes. The original recipe called for a combination of both kinds of Chex and nuts, tossed in a margarine-Worcestershire salty garlic mix. Today, margarine has fallen out of fashion, so a good butter or quality olive oil will suit you just fine.
This is one recipe where you really can't go wrong, as long as you have enough oil or fat to coat the crunchies, and plenty of seasoning to back it up. To me, this makes it an excellent blank canvas for your own regional riffs.
If you're in the Southwest, add some Hatch green chile powder to spice it up. For the Deep South? Add some candied pecans for extra nuttiness and that salty-sweet combination. Up north, throw in some dried blueberries or cranberries for a burst of fruit flavor. For a truly elevated take, consider this Bon Appétit recipe made with raw sesame seeds, ghee and white miso.
Of course, there's always the original Chex Mix recipe from its namesake, though using a microwave to bake the mix is a no-no for me. If you're feeling extra-adventurous, consider these add-ons and additions: sprinkling fresh cilantro or nutritional yeast on top, mixing fish sauce or sriracha with the butter, using freshly roasted garlic, or swapping out peanuts for pistachios.
But if you prefer your snacks more on the sweet side, you're in luck. My same Midwestern friend bestowed upon me the recipe for puppy chow, which is a dangerous peanut butter-chocolate version of the classic mix. Puppy chow certainly won't win any beauty prizes — it got its name for a very good reason. Chunks of cereal covered in melted chocolate and powdered sugar don't make for a Pinterest-worthy dessert.
Unfortunately, none of these snacks could be accused of being healthy. Writes Carolyn Mortell in SeriousEats, "For the uninitiated, puppy chow is, like many Midwestern snack foods, a bunch of easy ingredients tossed in a bowl to create a pretty unhealthy whole that's much greater than the sum of its parts." That being said, if you want healthy party snacks, well, the raw vegetable crudités are on the other table.
Puppy chow might have even more of a cult following than party mix. Consider Naomi Tomky's ode to the chow in Taste, where she writes, "The puppy chow belt runs through the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, fanning out into the surrounding areas. There it is at every potluck, picnic, and holiday party table." Her recipe is simple and time-tested, and honestly, I'm not sure it needs an update. Beyond investing in high-quality chocolate chips, you could try swapping out the peanut butter with an unexpected nut butter, or using coconut sugar instead of powdered sugar.
Turns out the name "puppy chow" didn't just come from its dog food-like appearance. Remember that the Purina company also called their animal feed "chow"? They came up with the branding after hearing what World War I soldiers called their rations. But past the name, its Midwestern origins are murky. Writes Tomky, "While plenty of people I spoke to tell stories of learning to make it at home or in Brownies and Girl Scouts, the one place repeated by most Midwesterners — from Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Nebraska — seems to be middle school home-economics class."
No matter where the chow was first created, there is one rule to follow: "Don't eat it too fast because you inhale the powdered sugar, resulting in an awful choking cough." Through many late-night firsthand experiences, I can confirm this is true. And remember, it's not a snack to be sneakily eaten, as the powdered sugar will end up all over your clothes and hands and kitchen. This is one sweet treat that's meant to be shared.