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How to make puppy chow

Merry Christmas from the cis version of myself from an alternate universe

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Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 25 2020

19 min read

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(As you might recall, earlier this year, an angel appeared to me in a dream and presented me with access to a most holy and beautiful artifact: Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the cooking blog that Emily Rogers, my cisgender self from an alternate universe, writes. What might seem to be a cooking blog at first is, instead, a window into the multiverse, and in this most festive of seasons, I thought it was worth seeing just what my other self is up to. It is important to note, as always, that photos do not survive the transmission between universes, but the alt text descriptions of those images is provided in place of them.)

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Merry Christmas, Emmy’s Army! It’s been a long year. It’s been a hard year. And here we are at the end of it. I hope you have your health and your loved ones. I do, and I’m eternally grateful for that.

They’re saying a blizzard might blow in off the lake today, and I can sort of see it out over the water’s surface. It’s white fading to grey, like when you do a gradient image as a background for your website or something. Not that I would know anything about this. Since Hubby David does all of that. Most of that. Some of that. [I do the web design. Don’t take this from me.] I know. We’re just having some fun.

J and G have been waiting for that first big snow.

[IMAGE: Two children, standing on a back porch, overlooking a wooded space, clutching a sled. The image is clearly staged.]

I don’t know if I have the heart to tell them that the blizzard might be bad enough that there won’t be any sledding until Saturday or even Sunday. It might be a full day of board games with their parents. Fortunately, David and I are amazing to play board games with.

[IMAGE: A blonde woman in pajamas thrusts her hands in the air in jubilation as her husband and children look on, smiling. They are all playing Sorry! The photo is clearly staged.]

So since it’s Christmas, I thought I’d find a way to celebrate the holiday and conjure up some good memories. I think we all need to feel a little warm and comfy during this Christmas in quarantine (our second). Sooner or later, Covid-18 [Ed: the novel coronavirus seems to have arisen in 2018 in Emily Rogers’s universe, and a vaccine has proved harder to come by] will be a thing of the past. But for now, we have to grab hold of these little lifelines thrown to us by our memories. You know?

I guess I’m just feeling a little alone this year, even with the people I love most right here. I get why others are taking risks — believe me, I do. But we have this big, beautiful house on that big, beautiful lake. We can afford to stay in for another Christmas, especially if it’s freezing and blustery.

So I’m going to make puppy chow.

[IMAGE: A bowl full of tan treats, clearly covered in confectioner’s sugar. A child’s hand reaches from off-camera to grab one. The image is clearly staged.]

Puppy chow was a standard of my Grandpa Lou. He wasn’t much of a chef, but he saw a recipe for it somewhere, and he just… decided to give it a shot. So every Christmas, we kids would go over to Grandpa Lou and Grandma Molly’s house and see just a mountain of the stuff.

[IMAGE: A small girl, in the 1980s, from the looks of it, looks up at the camera, eyes wide in surprise. Her face is covered in powdered sugar remnants. This photo has clearly been scanned in. It is not staged.]

See? There I am. Your humble recipe blogger as a tiny girl, unable to get enough of Grandpa Lou’s puppy chow. If you want to get a free year of Chax cereal — which we’re going to use to make our puppy chow in a bit — just send an email to emmysarmy99@gmail.com telling me about your favorite holiday memory and about the person it most reminds you of! The good people at Chax and I will pick our five favorites and set you up with Chax for all of 2021! [Ed: For some reason, some brand names seem to be slightly different in Emily Rogers’s universe. “Chax” appears to just be “Chex,” for instance.] And heck, we’ll throw in a copy of Christmas with Emily Rogers for good measure.

[IMAGE: A cookbook cover, next to a box of Chax cereal. On the cover of the cookbook, the blonde woman holds a gigantic roast, tilted slightly toward camera, while standing in front of a Christmas tree. Everything in this image has been staged.]

I once asked Grandpa Lou why this delicious treat, clearly meant for human consumption, was called puppy chow, and he said it was because it was good for all the little puppies. Then he would scratch me behind my ear until I giggled. “I’m not a little puppy!” I’d say. “Aren’t you?” he’d say, and then he’d scoop me up into a big hug.

Grandpa Lou died when I was 14, right before Christmas. Heart attack. Nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. When we went over to the house for the holiday that year, a few days after the funeral, there wasn’t any puppy chow, and that felt right, on some level. Of course there wasn’t any puppy chow. Nobody was there to make it.

So as the years went by, nobody made puppy chow. When I tried to tell David about it, the first time he came home with me for Christmas, he had never even heard of maybe the most delicious snack ever. [Untrue. We just called it muddy buddies.] Well, that’s a bad name for it, David. Then one year, when I was pregnant with J, I just decided I wanted my kid to grow up in a house where we had puppy chow at Christmas. So I decided to teach myself how to make it. I am, after all, a recipe professional. I’ve written cookbooks!

Emmy’s Army, I couldn’t do it. Oh, sure, I could follow the recipe. I could buy all the ingredients. I could melt butter and peanut butter and chocolate together. I could toss cereal in it, then add powdered sugar. But I couldn’t do it, you know? The thing that I wanted wasn’t available to me anymore. I don’t even mean that I couldn’t get my Grandpa Lou back, because I knew I couldn’t. I mean that I couldn’t quite get my memory back either. The thing I had eaten as a kid was gone from my memory, beyond some hazy sense that it was the best thing I’d ever eaten.

So I’m not going to be able to share Grandpa Lou’s recipe with you, because I can’t make you me in the year 1991, much as I’d like to. But I’m going to share something with you that’s almost as good. Maybe it will become a tradition in your house, too.

Sometimes I think about how so many of the things we do at this time of year are invented. Somebody one time put up a tree and decorated it with pretty things, and now everybody does it. My grandpa found a recipe in a newspaper he was reading on the toilet and decided to try it, and now my kids will have puppy chow for the rest of their lives (and their kids and their kids and their kids and…). And what I make for them is different from my memory, but what they make for their kids will be different from their memory. The future is built so gradually underneath you that you don’t realize what’s happening until the ground you thought you knew has been completely changed. You don’t know what things are going to echo until you’ve made them real.

So here’s what you’re going to need to make puppy chow!

[IMAGE: A box of Chax cereal, a stick of butter, a jar of creamy peanut butter, a bag of chocolate chips, a bag of powdered sugar, all sitting on an impeccably clean kitchen counter. This image has obviously been staged.]

And don’t let little hands get involved just yet!

[IMAGE: A child licks chocolate off her fingers with a devilish smile. This one probably isn’t staged, but who can say for sure?]

Now first, you’re going to melt some butter (a half-cup, or one stick), low and slow. Just throw it in a pan on a burner, and when it’s about half melted, put in a full cup of creamy peanut butter. (A lot of recipes say you should just melt everything at once, and I’m sure that works, but I’ve found this to give me better results.)

Once that butter and peanut butter is nice and smooth, put in two cups of chocolate chips. I use semi-sweet, but you could probably use milk chocolate, and it would be just fine. Get all of that melted together. You’d better sample it to see how it tastes.

[IMAGE: The blonde woman licks chocolate off her finger. Both the fact that the chocolate should have been too hot to touch and something in her expression suggest that this photo has taken several attempts.]

Now get the biggest bowl you have.

[IMAGE: A big bowl — clearly staged]

No! Bigger!

[IMAGE: An even bigger bowl — clearly staged]

That should about do it. So take a full box of Chax cereal (one of the big boxes) and dump it in there. It’s going to seem like a lot, but I promise you it will work out. Then pour your melted chocolate/peanut butter/butter mixture (doesn’t that sound great!?) over the cereal and start tossing it to coat everything in it.

[IMAGE: A morass of chocolatey goo and crispy cereal all mixing up into each other, two rubber spatulas doing the business of coating the cereal. This probably wasn’t staged.]

Let all of this cool just a little bit — not too much! You don’t want it getting solidified just yet. Pour it all into a giant paper sack. This part is fun for the kids.

[IMAGE: Children lifting up a paper bag with huge grins on their faces. Staged!!!]

And then pour a bunch of powdered sugar over it in the sack. And shake shake shake shake it off, just like my good friend Taylor Swift likes to say! [God, Em, she is not your friend.] We met that one time! [You saw her walking down the street in New York. You didn’t “meet” her.] Then we breathed the same oxygen! It was nice!

Anyway, that’s when the kids can shake their little hearts out.

[IMAGE: The kids shake the paper bag up and down. This is not staged. Probably.]

And once that’s all done, you have—

[IMAGE: Puppy chow! Staged.]

Puppy chow!

It’s so tasty!

[IMAGE: The blonde woman takes a big bite of puppy chow. This is clearly the only bite of this she is going to eat, and as such, we have to consider this photo staged.]

That Christmas after Grandpa Lou died, I was wandering around his house, looking for little things that reminded me of him, and I happened to walk in on my Grandma Molly in the bathroom the two of them had shared. The faucet was running, and she was staring at it, just looking at the running water. I thought about saying something, but then she stood up and grabbed a bottle of Grandpa Lou’s cologne and unscrewed the top. She dumped it all down the faucet. She shook the bottle a few times to make sure every drop was out, and then she turned to throw it out, and she saw me. “I always hated that cologne,” she said. Then she walked past me and back to the party.

[IMAGE: A family photo. The tiny blonde girl we saw earlier is sitting on an old man’s lap. He smiles. She looks off camera. This is staged.]

I think a lot about the image I present to you of my life. Most of the photos you see on this blog are staged. Sometimes, I catch the kids doing something cute, and the light is just right, and it all works out. More often than not, it’s just David and I trying and trying and trying to get something right and not quite capturing it. Something happens to you when you have to be something specific for people to appreciate you, which is something my friend Taylor Swift knows a lot about. [I’m saying nothing.] Good.

This is what I look like most of the time.

[IMAGE: The blonde woman in the morning, no makeup, hair straggly. She looks older than she usually does, and her face lacks the forced smile of other photos. Probably not staged.]

I know, right? Ahhhh! Get her away!

[IMAGE: The blonde woman, perfectly coiffed and dressed]

Much better.

But what if it isn’t? What if I’m covering something up just by trying to tell you everything is fine? What if I’m trying to placate myself by placating you? Do you think my dream was to write a recipe blog? Or was that just the first thing people paid me for? I wanted to be a writer. That much I know. But I don’t know that I wanted to be this kind of a writer. Admitting that feels like treason, though, because you are here to read about recipes and not, like, my general ambivalence about how I fear I wasted my talent and my youth on a thing that seemed important at the time but actually wasn’t what I wanted at all.

“Wow, Emily,” you might say, “did you just turn 40?” And I sure did.

Even that I have trouble admitting. It’s just my age, but the idea that there is some deepest part of myself that I should keep from you, because you don’t want to know what it looks like is hard to shake. I’m always worried you’ll come across me dumping cologne down the sink, and you’ll realize that something I pretended to be was something I never was. And in that moment, I’ll realize it too and see who I truly am. I sometimes think I have no idea. I think that I think so much about who I might be in some other reality (a recurrent theme, I’m aware), because the facts of my life feel so impermanent. Who am I over here? Who am I over there?

I sometimes get these hints from the people who knew him best that maybe Grandpa Lou wasn’t as good to everybody as he was to me. Grandma Molly died less than two years after he did, and she was the one who might have told me. She started drinking more after his death, and I don’t know if that meant anything. I was 16 when she died. I didn’t even know the questions to ask. We all got together that Christmas as a family, one last time, and after that, it was like nothing was bonding us together anymore. I haven’t seen most of that side of the family since my wedding.

Maybe we build these traditions because we want to invent not just the present and not just the future but the past too. Maybe I shouldn’t be trying to recapture Grandpa Lou’s puppy chow, because I should be trying to invent my own. Maybe the thing I remember isn’t accurate at all. Maybe there was a reason that family mostly disintegrated after Grandpa Lou and Grandma Molly were both gone. Maybe this is what happens. Maybe things get a little bit better, and you pretend the past wasn’t as bad as it was. Maybe you have to stage everything. Because it’s easier.

I know I should dig more. I know I should ask more questions. But I don’t know how to start. I don’t know how to call my brother and be, like, “You remember any weird stuff around our grandparents? Because I feel like I should.” I know he would say, “No.” I know everybody would say, “No.” But some part of me wants to know. Some part of me wants to know that the reason puppy chow doesn’t taste as good anymore is because I haven’t perfected the recipe and not because I never realized my childhood hero had feet of clay. But that’s all it is to grow up, huh? You realize nothing is what you thought it was, and Santa isn’t real, and all of that.

It feels weird to transition from that into “Merry Christmas!” but maybe it shouldn’t be. We take certain days out of the year, and we set them aside to agree that on this day, we will build a life that feels camera-ready. And all the other days, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

[IMAGE: The blonde woman and her family, gathered on the couch in matching pajamas. It should feel more staged than it does. Something here is real. Other things aren’t. Who is to say which is which?]

Public service announcement: When I started writing this newsletter, I didn’t realize just how functionally meaningless the words “puppy chow” would come to seem to me. Also: Emily Rogers clearly needs to add a teaspoon of vanilla to the butter/peanut butter/chocolate mixture, as that will enhance all of the flavors. God, Emily Rogers!

Also, also: I’ve temporarily pushed back the paid newsletter because I’m working out the exact details. The wait hopefully won’t be that long. Thank you to all of you who have subscribed already!

What I’ve been up to: I’ve been publishing a lot at Vox, but the thing I’m proudest of is this new series The Lost Year, in which I talk to a bunch of people about their 2020 that was. You can catch up with all of the entries so far right here, but you should definitely read this one about a baby pig, which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been associated with. I wish I could call these my words, but they’re actually the words of a completely different Emily. She has a cool name, though.

I had a teacher once tell me a story: Her first husband told her he didn’t want to be married to her. He dropped her off at her parents’ house. She spent weeks lying on her childhood bed, and her mom would come in and hold her hand, not saying anything, and lie next to her. Her mom had a cat, and the first relationship my teacher built after her husband left was with this cat. That’s how she learned to trust again.

I decided to leave my husband about a year ago. And I remember trying to imagine my life a year from then. I did not picture picking up a pig out of my parents’ shower stall and singing to him and trying to get him to latch onto a bottle and mixing up a pumpkin puree in Greek yogurt to try to get him to eat.

The night before I brought Franklin back to the farm, he was sleeping in my lap. I told him, “I don’t think I told you that I was married.” I just started to cry. There was this moment of being alone again, this problem of doing the right thing. Maybe that’s how Covid-19 feels, too. We’re isolating ourselves to do the right thing, but we’re all suffering because of it. We’re seeking companionship in these very odd ways. We’re talking over Zoom. I’m cradling a pig.


Read me: I try to make a point of reading “Dulce Domum,” a chapter from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows most Christmases. It’s such a lovely evocation of having a cozy place to go to in the cold.

The sheep ran huddling together against the hurdles, blowing out thin nostrils and stamping with delicate fore-feet, their heads thrown back and a light steam rising from the crowded sheep-pen into the frosty air, as the two animals hastened by in high spirits, with much chatter and laughter. They were returning across country after a long day’s outing with Otter, hunting and exploring on the wide uplands where certain streams tributary to their own River had their first small beginnings; and the shades of the short winter day were closing in on them, and they had still some distance to go. Plodding at random across the plough, they had heard the sheep and had made for them; and now, leading from the sheep-pen, they found a beaten track that made walking a lighter business, and responded, moreover, to that small inquiring something which all animals carry inside them, saying unmistakably, ‘Yes, quite right; THIS leads home!’


Watch me: Libby and I watched the terrific British Christmas film The Holly and the Ivy on Christmas Eve, and it’s one of my very favorite “a large family comes together for Christmas” films. Definitely check it out if you have the ability. You basically have to buy a physical edition, though it shows on TCM most years.

And another thing… Thank you for reading this newsletter all year long, everybody! I am so happy to have every single one of you here, no matter your interest in my weird flights of fancy or my more meat and potatoes TV writing. I adore hearing from all of you, and I look forward to continuing to chat about this in 2021.

This week’s reading music: “Happiness” by Taylor Swift

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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