The snack that came to party
Some notes on Chex Mix
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A mix of crunchy snacks, with Chex cereal (in its various formats, including corn and wheat) as the centerpiece. Available in prepackaged formats or make it yourself.
When you go looking around the internet for the backstory of Chex Mix, you find quite a few articles out there, nearly all of them riffing on the original manufacturer, Ralston-Purina. Most of them focus on the fact that it’s best known for pet foods; a few others dig deeper and note that the first part of its name comes from Ralstonism, which just happens to be a late nineteenth-century sect with strict (and ostensibly “science-based”) rules about diet, exercise, sex, and much more, and which was founded by a guy who also “advocated the castration of all ‘anti-racial’ (non-Caucasian) males at birth.” It’s a interesting and alarming story, truly, particularly when you consider how many other prominent cereal creators of the era (including Messrs. Kellogg and Post) were into eugenics and had some frankly fucking ridiculous ideas about science and how to build utopian communities and the concept of “health food.” (There’s a book someone should write, if it doesn’t exist already, about these guys and … all … that.)
But today I want to mix it up. Mix, get it? Because … yeah, okay, you get it. Chex Mix.
Anyway, the fact is, while all that Problematic Founder stuff is, again, interesting and alarming, right now, I’m more interested in the mix itself. So we’ll zoom past the Ralston & Co., past the invention of Chex cereal (in 1937), and land in 1952. It’s the postwar era, the American economy is booming, McDonald’s and the space race are just on the horizon, and Ralston-Purina is looking to boost its Chex sales and get into the world of party snacks, expanding the product’s appeal beyond breakfast.
So they come up with a concept that, as far as I can tell, was first introduced to the world in the May 19, 1952 issue of Life magazine. Here it is:
Zoom in on the bottom left and you see a recipe. New! Easy! And only Bite Size Cereals make it!
Now. If you flip through the rest of the magazine, you’ll notice that the themes of entertaining and housekeeping come back again and again—the issue is full of ads with a similarly chipper tone and heavily gendered message that says to women, “This is an easy, convenient way to make your family happy.”
Here’s, just a few pages before the Party Mix, is a pie recipe for beginners:
And just before that is the refrigerator you’ve hoped for:
And right before that is this lovely but not overly fussy dinnerware you can toss in your automatic dishwasher:
The pitch, in the ads throughout the magazine, is a specific ideal of having it all—or, to put it another way, “Your Home can be a Dream Home, too!”
Look at that happy couple! He’s beaming, she’s swooning, they’re living the life and You Can, Too. (I dig that fireplace, honestly.)
I could go on and on—I find ads endlessly fascinating as windows into a specific cultural moment in a specific place—but you get the idea, and that idea is: Ain’t consumerism so convenient and so grand?!
Something interesting and unifying about the ads, and what connects all of this back to Chex Mix, is a tension at play if you take a moment to consider what’s going on.
The ads are, of course, focused on female consumers (primarily white women), offering them an aspiration image of the perfect household in the postwar era, but there’s also a golly-gee-whiz informality too them. The archetype presented here is one that balances, on the one hand, traditional standards for being an “ideal” middle- or upper-class housewife and hostess—having the right china, the right silverware, everything ornate and just so; getting every detail right, every time; and doing it all yourself or with hired help—and, on the other hand, an acknowledgment that women of this modern era might not have the time and interest to do things the hard way anymore, and a bit of informality is something to be embraced.
As Kaitlin Burroughs put it in an astute post for Gender, Food, & Culture in 2013, advertisers tried to work both angles:
The target consumer is meant to aspire to be that competent woman, to imagine herself the envy of the neighborhood housewives, and rather than having to discover the tools and techniques to assist her in this herself, the advertisements are selling her the products that will get her there in no time.
Which brings us back go Chex Mix—which, you may have noted, was originally advertised as Party Mix. The name’s important, telling you that this isn’t just any assortment but one that’s perfect for entertaining—and, like the era’s party mixes of Brach’s Chocolate or mixed nuts, the specific terminology offered a modicum of fanciness. It wasn’t a mix for kids’ snacking or, you know, shoveling in your face while watching I Love Lucy, but for entertaining guests in your home. The 1960 edition of Practical Home Economics Teacher Edition of Co-ed went as far as calling Chex Party Mix as “the greatest hors d'oeuvre since popcorn and peanuts” and suggested inviting “everyone you know over to the house for Party Mix and punch.”
In the realm of entertaining, that shift from traditional to modern, and the balance between the two realms, played out not just in the influx of convenience foods (like Easy Cheese which we’ve discussed previously), but also in a general relaxing of the formal structures and guidelines about what it meant to host. Multicourse meals were still very much around, to be sure, but more informal dinner parties were increasingly common, often DIY affairs—Party Mix and punch, for example.
Which is to say: In its Party Mix, Chex was offering American women a chance to have it all, to entertain and impress without too much stress or time commitment. You could even make it for big events, as the hospitality industry publication Volume Feeding Institutions suggested in 1962:
Chex Mix is the classy snack you make with Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, Corn Chex, and various other delicious ingredients. It’s great for clubs, lounges, banquet rooms and everyplace else where people expect to find hors d’oeuvres. Makes them stick around, too. And it’s real easy to put together. You can prepare it in non-rush hours because you can mix Party Mix ahead and store it in big batches.
As with Easy Cheese, though—which shifted from a quirky but essentially fancy treat beloved by hostesses in a hurry to a “dude food” people spray in their mouths on YouTube—the cultural meaning of Chex Mix eventually shifted. It’s hard to say when it happened, although it’s a good guess that this evolution happened around 1987, the year Ralston Purina introduced its own bagged Chex Mix, the recipe for which varies from the one in those ads in the 1950s. (Incidentally, all the Chex products are now owned by General Mills.)
A bagged snack is still something you can serve to guests, of course, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of bowls of Chex Mix at parties. But the shift to a bagged format also removes the preparation, the anticipation, the sense of occasion. It makes it all the easier to just munch on the food on your own time—and nothing wrong with that, to be clear, but it’s clearly a different sort of experience, one markedly removed from a 1950s dinner party.
If anything, Chex Mix has become … well, I hate to use the term “basic” to describe something I personally enjoy (even as I fully admit to being basic myself). But Chex Mix is now strictly a snack in the vast ocean of snacks, no fancier than a bowl of almonds or wasabi peas or whatever other munchable things people in put into bowls when entertaining. It’s easy to prepare, yeah, but so are any number of snacks from Trader Joe’s—Rosemary Sfogliette Crackers, Spicy Chakri Mix, Pumpkin Spiced Teeny Tiny Pretzels, it’s a long list—which are probably the rough present-day equivalent to the 1950s Party Mix: convenient, but with just enough of a sense of intrigue and classiness that your friends will think, “Some effort was made here and I appreciate that, and also this feels somewhat new and interesting.” Not, like, high praise, but praise nonetheless.
Chex Mix, well, it doesn’t offer that anymore, not really. If there was any doubt as to how Chex Mix currently rates, in the collective cultural understanding of 2021, here’s a little glimpse from the (excellent!) sitcom The Other Two:
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And! If you liked this, you’ll probably also enjoy this post about Easy Cheese: