The Family Recipe (Variations)

By Casey Hall

Casey Hall used to move much party mix weight, but got out of the game
while he was still young. He still has the recipes, the memories and the
scars. Now he slings words for a living, mostly about snacks.

My earliest memories are of pretzel sticks. Woven rice squares. Oat loops. And my parents standing over the big yellow bowl that we built the party mix in, like witches watching a cauldron, like alchemists searching for traces of gold amidst the lead.

Some families, I would eventually learn, had prayer and piety. Some had annual boating trips in New England. We had party mix.

Not because my parents were charmed by easy entertaining solutions of the 70s. No, they weren’t the entertaining type. “It’s the party mix that makes it a party, not the people” was the common refrain when a fresh batch of mix would pop up on the living room table.

The custom, along with the yellow bowl, came from the old country. Father’s great great great grandmother, Jęspèna, sewed an acre and a half of grains while father’s great great great grandfather went to die in a war. She milled the rice, she ground the oats, she wove the wheat with her tiny hands. She foraged ash from the river for her lye pretzelen. She mixed everything together with the juices of a pressed goat’s liver, to add umami. And finished it off with her only grain of salt.

Then she invited the whole village over to celebrate the death of her rotten husband.

No one makes a party mix like great great great grandmother Jęspèna, but everyone has their own recipe, their own philosophy toward what goes in the bowl. They were discussed, endlessly, like politics. Feelings would get hurt, sides were inevitably taken.

Mom and dad didn’t even agree.

Mom was a traditionalist: wheat squares, corn squares, loops and pretzels, dash of Worcestershire sauce.

Dad was a radical, a product of hippie parents and being held back two grades in Montessori school. When mom wasn’t looking, dad would switch out the corn squares for rice squares, add fancy cashews and a dash of hot sauce along with the Worcestershire.

His parents made depression party mix, saltines with salt water.

Mom’s family refuses to say what’s in their party mix.

The uncle that we never speak to anymore replaces the loops with marshmallow cereal to give the whole thing “that sweet and salty jazz.”

Aunt Number 1 likes to travel. She mixes her mix with whatever strange and offensive sauces remind her of the last place she went. Sometimes there are beetles in there. Sometimes miniature, petrified fish.

The other aunt, who doesn’t trust “big cereal,” makes a mix of roasted chickpeas and wheat gluten seasoned with nutritional yeast.

And Bruce, her “life friend,” makes a dog friendly party mix with chunks of pepperoni.

I’ve got a cousin that serves it with a spoon, floating in thin gravy alongside uncooked and broken up ramen brick.

Nonna sprinkles her blood relaxers and brain decoagulators on top.

And once a year, the family reunion is when second cousins, half sisters and other questionably related relatives come out of the woodwork with their own bowls of questionable party mix. Rich, who’s rich, decants a mix with pine nuts and saffron from a Giovannia crystal swan. On mom’s side, the French side, we’ve got Yves who douses everything in brandy, flambés it table side. One of the cousins does all wheat squares, tosses with chive oil and ranch seasoning mix.

We see nut-forward mixes with brown butter and parmesan, we see people confuse party mix with trail mix and throw chocolate covered peanuts and raisins in there, we see the party mix with something to prove, glowing red from hot cheeze puff dust and ghost pepper sauce. We see it all—a document of history, a portrait of our family.

Afterwards, I nap hard on a stomach filled with a mix of party mixes. I dream of our crest, our house banner, a shield in four parts—squares, loops, pretzels, nuts, balanced on an inverted crown, carried on the back of a rampant griffin, the Lord of Snacks.