Quick thought experiment: picture your ideal party snack, real or imaginary. What are your requirements? While you're thinking, I'll tell you mine. It's almost too sweet, with a touch of salt that keeps the sugar coma at bay for at least a few handfuls. It's texturally satisfying, with a smooth outer layer that easily gives way to a shatteringly crispy center. It involves chocolate and peanut butter (pretty much a prerequisite for any food item I'd call "ideal"). It takes five minutes to make, using only the microwave and a few staple pantry ingredients. It can be transported in a plastic bag. Such a snack sounds like a stoner's fantasy, but if you spent any part of your childhood in the Midwest you've probably already seen the light: puppy chow is real, and it's impossible to keep your hands out of the bowl.
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. So named because it closely resembles dog food*, puppy chow starts with Chex or Crispix cereal (rice or corn—gluten-free before gluten-free was a thing) coated in a mixture of peanut butter, chocolate, and butter, and dusted with powdered sugar. The recipe, in short: pour, melt, stir, pour, stir, pour, shake. Serve at every church potluck and game night, movie marathon and Super Bowl party.
*"But don't actually feed it to dogs, because chocolate is poisonous to them!" —Parents and teachers everywhere
As a child navigating all the trials and tribulations of coming of age in suburban Minnesota, puppy chow was oftentimes the answer to everything. Christmas coming up and you already spent all your allowance on body glitter and Pokémon cards? Puppy chow was there for you, packed into individual plastic bags and tied with sparkly ribbon. Fail a math test? Making puppy chow allowed you to feel like you had some agency in an unjust world. Bonus: your parents would be too confused to punish you, unsure whether to start in on the unfortunate report card or the kitchen that looked like it got caught in the first September snowfall.
If your parents, like mine, didn't keep any sugary snacks on hand, puppy chow could rescue any failing sleepover. Once it hit midnight and my gremlin-like friends started clamoring for Pixie Stix or Lucky Charms, I would tiptoe upstairs and transform dry, flavorless old-person cereal into crack for pre-teens, hoping that my parents wouldn't wake up to the beeping of the microwave. It worked as a rudimentary litmus test for friendship, too: watch and see which friend picks out only the fattest pieces of chow, leaving behind the Chex pieces that got the short end of the chocolate-coated stick. That friend cannot be trusted. (Spoiler alert: that friend was me.)
In short, puppy chow is the snack that has your back. The Internet attributes its origins to one Elizabeth Cooney, with no other explanation. I can only postulate that she was (is?), like so many others, a Midwestern woman with a gaggle of children to wrangle, lots of snack-related obligations, and not a lot of time to fulfill them. Her necessity created the chocolate-covered, sugar-coated linchpin of my childhood, and for that I am eternally grateful.
But how, you ask, is this marvelous creation made? Virtually every recipe goes roughly as follows: Put 9 cups of cereal (again, Chex or Crispix are ideal) in a bowl and set it aside. Then microwave 1 cup of semisweet chocolate chips, 1/2 cup of peanut butter, and 1/4 cup of butter or margarine for 30-second increments until the mixture can be stirred to a smooth consistency. Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt, and then pour it over your bowl of cereal, mixing until it's evenly coated. Then dump it into a 2-gallon zipper-lock bag, add in 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar, and shake. Yup, it's that simple.
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