Ambrosia…the “stuff” on the table on the holiday of every single home in the Deep South where I’m from and that that contained whatever your Mom and grandmother could possibly find to put in it—such as canned sweetened pinrapple, canned Mandarin orange slices, , gooey mini marshmallows, coconut, sugar-soaked maraschino cherries, bananas, strawberries, peeled grapes, and crushed pecans, fruit cocktail…all smothered in some other sort of thick, creamy binder probably processed food—such as mayonnaise, Cool Whip, heavy cream sour cream, cream cheese, pudding, yogurt, or cottage cheese….and then refrigerated for a few hours or even overnight to allow the flavors to meld.
What a waste of fresh produce perhaps…..not to mention an early introduction to processed foods.
Definitely not a food on the table that an ancient Greek god of mythology would have put on his plate without his mother making him do it.
While there is really no real consensus on what ambrosia should contain, ambrosia drums up memories from the past—either can be a cheap, sensory blast from the past…or a wistful nostalgia for their grandparents’ old recipes.
And there are various questions that you could ask yourself, such as…
- Is it a dessert or a salad?
- Should one use coconut or not?
- What about marshmallows or whipped cream?
- What variety of fruit should it have?
- How did it come to exist at all?
- Why did it become a Southern Christmas tradition?
- And probably most importantly, how do we keep ambrosia from being a sugar-laden conglomeration of processed foods and sugar?
Ambrosia and the 1800’s
It’s hard to imagine a time when something as simple as layers of sliced oranges, grated coconut, and a touch of sugar could so delight diners.
Perhaps the first recipe for ambrosia was found in the 1867 cookbook Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years, written by Maria Massey Barringer.
Her recipe for ambrosia is a simple three-ingredient dish…”Grate the white part of the cocoanut [sic], sweeten with a little sugar, and place in a glass bowl, in alternate layers with pulped oranges, having a layer of cocoanut on top. Serve in ice-cream plates or saucers.”.
People soon began “twanking” the recipe to include anything from sliced pineapple, a little sherry or Madeira, bananas, pineapple, strawberries, orange or lemon juice, cherries, dates, papayas, peaches, and pears.
Recipes for ambrosia were soon found in cooking and household columns of newspapers everywhere.
The fact that ambrosia became closely associated with Christmas in the South at this time perfectly makes sense for several reasons…
- Coconuts became more available around the same time, thanks to the newly completed railroads linking the West Coast with the east.
- Florida orange season began in the late fall, so in December fresh oranges would have just become available in the markets.
- The sheer novelty of formerly exotic foods was enough to make such a dish special.
The Making of a Southern Tradition
Even though most cooks continued to use this basic recipe—orange, coconut and sugar—for making ambrosia, many cooks started adding more modern and sweeter components—especially marshmallows.
Although Ancient Egyptians had used marshmallow plants…an herb native to parts of Europe, North Africa, and Asia which grows in marshes and other damp areas…back as early as 2000 BC…surprisingly, they used the marshmallow for medicinal purposes—such as soothing coughs and sore throats and healing wounds.
Eating marshmallows was a privilege strictly reserved for royalty…and the manufacture of marshmallows was limited.
But In the early to mid-1800s, France confectioners began pressing the marshmallow sap in candy molds and marketing this candy as “Pâte de Guimauve”…a spongy-soft dessert made from whipping dried marshmallow roots with sugar, water, and egg whites.
Even so making marshmallows from the sap od the mallow plant was too time-consuming for marshmallows to be affordable to be enjoyed by the average Joe.
But thanks to companies such as Stephen F. Whitman & Son of Philadelphia, marshmallows were introduced to the United States and available for mass consumption…sold in tins as penny candy…and used in a variety of recipes—such as banana fluff.
The Whitman company introduced what most of us refer to as “marshmallow cream” around World War I,
So at this time, the late 1920s to 1930s, people began publishing recipes containing this marshmallow cream all across the country—especially recipes for ambrosia, salads that included oranges, bananas, pineapple, strawberries, along with grated coconut and some orange and lemon juice poured over the top…
Ambrosia soon became associated with holidays around the South…the one dish that no Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner “required.”
The 1970s and 1980s
Back when I was growing up…ambrosia basically was a term used to describe any fruit salad smothered in something so that the fruit was unrecognizable…anything from expansive fruit salad with lots of citrus and non-citrus fruits tossed with coconut…strange, bright orange concoctions made with flavored gelatin, canned whipped cream, and plenty of marshmallows…traditional mixtures of fresh sliced oranges, grated coconut, and a sprinkling of sugar….a bag of sweetened shredded coconut and supremed orange sections, occasionally with a few Maraschino cherries and some little marshmallows for visual interest.
And including a variety of ingredients.
- Fruits such as cherries, dates, papayas, peaches, pears…
- Smothering stuff such as mayo, sour cream, marshmallow cream, Coo. Whip, cream cheese…
- Flavorings such as rum, grenadine, almonds…
Obviously you can still make ambrosia out of pretty much anything you darn well want to, but the goal is to make it fresher and to cut back on processed foods…
But here’s a recipe that is a good jumping off point for making heavenly ambrosia…
- 2 cherimoya, peeled, seeded and cubed
- 6 navel oranges
- 1 pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into cubes
- 1C fresh shredded coconut
- 1 large banana
- 4.5oz maraschino cherries, drained well (optional)
- 1C mini marshmallows
- ½C pineapple juice
- 1C vanilla Greek yogurt
- Toss all of the fruit together in a bowl.
- Let sit for 5 minutes.
- Stir together juice and yogurt.
- Add to the fruit.
- Mix gently until combined.
- Refrigerate anywhere from thirty minutes to a day or two, but the longer it sits in the fridge, the smooshier the salad will become…which explains why most of us remember ambrosia as the smooshy gross stuff that we all avoided on the Chr1istmas buffet back home when we were little.