The lights for the outside of our house went up the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a schedule we observe year in and year out, weather permitting.The paperwhite bulbs, started weeks ago in jars and little pots, have begun unfurling their delicate blooms.
The tree is up, the stockings are hung.Television schedules have been disrupted for "specials" and a few series have already aired the holiday version of their shows.
But truth be told, the something that really makes it Christmas for this family in this house, didn't happen until last night.
It is not shopping or decking the halls, it is not carols or special lights, not church services, wreaths, candles or any decorations at all that send the Now It Is Christmas signal to my brain.
Whether or not it would be considered sad beyond measure or merely expected, it is food that does that work, and for me, one holiday dish in particular.
How do I know it is Christmas? With the arrival of...Chex Mix!
I have, as long as I can remember, always preferred the salty crunchy treats over the sweet or chewy ones. Put out a bowl of mixed nuts or a plate of cheese and crackers alongside a plate of fudge and I'll be happy to let you have all the candy if you'll spot me all the rest.
I remember discovering what was to become my very favorite savory holiday treat at a neighbor's house, when I was about five or six years old. This was the home of my best friend, her Mom being my Mom's best neighborhood friend, their house being the scene of many a sleepover and shared meal where I had most of my first "otherness" food experiences.
This gathering was to be of the "bring a holiday treat to share" variety of open house and I had eagerly helped my Mom make several loaves of banana bread to take as our contribution. My Mom was not one to keep baked treats around our house, she usually didn't bake anything she wasn't going to give away, so the idea I'd actually get to eat some of what we'd baked was honestly the center of my excitement about going to the party.It was the potential of multiple slices of banana bread that had me obediently slipping into a dress my Mom felt required the support of a particularly scratchy stiff petticoat, an undergarment whose itchiness was the bane of my dressed up existence in those days.
It was that promise of banana bread in combination with a sociably distracted Mom, pleasantly diverted from her usual focus on staying between me and my goal of putting myself into a sugar coma, that had me on my very best behavior. I was helpful, polite, thoughtful, doing anything and everything I could to assure I would be allowed to accompany her to this neighborhood holiday extravaganza.
We'd finished baking the bread before lunch and after the loaves had cooled, filling the house with their enticing aroma, and I had finished a lunch I had no interest in, Mom carefully sliced the bread in preparation for fanning it out artistically on a platter, and let me have one end piece to eat.
Finishing the arranging, she wiped her hands on her apron and placed a warning hand on my shoulder. Looking me in the eye she gave me the lowdown on how the rules regarding my behavior at this party would go.
We would go to the party, she would put the platter of bread on the table set with food for the guests, and after that I was not to touch the bread until our hostess had taken the plastic wrap off. I was not to hover around the table and I was not to ask when we could have the bread.
Then, she said, I could take only one slice at a time. After I took that slice, a small one, I was to move away from the table and visit with somebody at the gathering while I ate it, and could only then walk! not rush! back to the table to take one more slice. The bread was to share with our friends and neighbors, she emphasized. There would be lots of treats on the table, and we were not taking the banana bread over to eat it all ourselves.
It was finally time. I watched my Mom place the plate with all those wondrous slices of banana bread goodness on the well stocked table. I grinned as my best friend's Mom took the plastic wrap off imediately, and told us to help ourselves to anything.
Then I realized there were too many grown-ups between me and my goal. Foiled, temporarily, I spooned a small handful of some sort of mixed cereals onto my plate and began to nibble. Clouds parted, angel choirs sang. More intrigued by the savory crunchy mixture with every bite, I asked my best friend if she knew what this most delicious treat was called?"Texas Trash" she told me, a favorite of her Mom's and the treat they had made the day before in large batches to anchor the table now covered with cookies and candies and breads of all kinds.
I went back for helping after helping, the banana bread quickly and completely forgotten as I ate pile after pile of salty crunchy wondrousness.
I eventually discovered the so-called Texas Trash was not a regional secret treasure but was really a variation of the nationally introduced Chex Mix. No matter the scale however, it was then and there, standing anchored close by a large bowl of toasted cereal pieces, that a food obsession bordering on addiction was born.
My friend's Mom made her mix with Spanish peanuts and Cheerios, a variation from the original recipe offering pleasing round shapes to contrast with all those squares. I somehow imprinted on that variant and the round brown Os became a look that came to represent how "my" Chex Mix must be. Over the years there have been multitudes of recipe tweaks offered by the cereal company themselves, not to mention the alterations that other families made to appease the taste buds of their nearest and dearest.
Chex Mix became available in bags, ready made, a cheesy version was introduced, but it matters not. We have tinkered with the recipe over the years, but finally landed upon OUR version (more Worcestershire sauce! no pretzels!) that serves as home base for all our Holiday Sanctioned Chex Mix focused holiday gnoshing.
And that simple fact remains: once the Chex Mix appears on the kitchen counter, the holiday eating game is officially ON. More so than cookies or candies or cheese balls or egg nog, it is the making, and eating, of mass quantities of Chex Mix that marks Christmas for me.
Here is the Base Recipe AustinAgrodolce way to make the merriest of mixes:
3 cups Corn Chex® cereal
3 cups Rice Chex® cereal
3 cups Wheat Chex® cereal
1 cup peanuts (light salt if I can find them)
1 cup Cheezits®
1 cup Cheerios®
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons seasoned salt
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
I do it up old school, using an aluminum roasting pan I buy just for this purpose and just for each year, baking the mix in a conventional oven for an hour at 250 degrees, stirring every 15 minutes, because I remain convinced the time in the oven coats and toasts the pieces better than the more contemporary microwave version.Now it is your turn to share in the comments section - what is your "official" holiday food? What substance, by its very appearance, lights up the holiday palates around your neck of the woods? And if it is Chex Mix, do you have your own variation on the recipe that makes it special for you and yours?Cheezits® instead of Goldfish® crackers? All pecans instead of mixed nuts or peanuts alone? Rye chips? A special herb mix? Share it here and know you are potentially helping create a new holiday tradition for somebody, one crunchy munchy bite at a time.