Oh boy. I’ve been able to live my entire life happily avoiding the seemingly strange and mixed up world of ambrosia but all that changed today. I’ve been to the other side now. I’ve lived it. And I’ve survived. Kind of.
To clear things up, ambrosia has nothing to do with Jell-O. If you were like me, you envisioned ambrosia to be one of those Jell-O molds filled with green or lemon Jell-O and little bits of fruit magically suspended inside the jiggly wreaths. That’s a Jell-O salad. That’s different, although equally as off putting. There is a Jell-O salad made with cottage cheese (which is a disturbing phrase to write) that looks like ambrosia, but it is still a different animal (or should I say creature?)
Ambrosia is actually a type of fruit salad where you mix fruit along with coconut, marshmallows and usually whipped cream, sour cream or other kind of creamy product. The name ambrosia literally means “immortality” in Greek and can be translated to mean the nectar of the gods. But I think if we were to present Zeus with a big dish of ambrosia salad as an offering to him on Mount Olympus, we would be struck down. Zeus was never much of a forgiving deity, and I bet you didn’t much care for fruit from a can either. Ambrosia seems to once again be one of those odd favorites of the fifties where housewives were trying to make the best of what was in the pantry. Being fancy and frugal. You can picture June Cleaver bringing an ambrosia salad to the Haskell’s annual Christmas party. Mrs. Haskell will of course say how wonderful it is and then conveniently forget to put it out at the buffet. Then Ward will have to hear June go on and on about how rude that woman is while all Ward wants to do is read the paper. That’s how the fifties were (so I hear).
I read an interesting article on NPR.org the other day about how the first lady affects the culinary tone of the White House and the country at large by how and what they eat. We have seen Michelle Obama set the tone for the last eight years with her focus on more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; less processed foods and desserts. The article was wondering what Melania Trump’s culinary vision will be (although it now looks like it is going to be a lot of borscht and stroganoff). The article goes on to talk about Mamie Eisenhower who, “defined efficiency and thrift during her White House tenure in the 1950s. As a military wife, she had managed the family’s finances for years. She kept an account of leftovers, and if an excess of turkey was in the kitchen after a dinner, she’d order the chefs to make turkey hash. Her famous saying was, “I could squeeze a dollar so tight, you could hear the eagle scream.” She was also enamored with the innovations of her day—gelatin and all manners of frozen, boxed and canned foods.” She wanted the White House kitchen staff to make full use of these things.” That made me consider ambrosia in a new light. Ambrosia is representative of a different time in our country where new inventions in food storage, distribution and purchasing brought new tastes and new food to the masses. It celebrates that new post-war spirit of innovation and even though we are paying for it now, at the time, ambrosia salad was the ultimate creation of exotic foods in one sweet cacophony of fifties delight.
I found a recipe online from a blog called My Baking Addiction which seemed classic enough. Everything I needed came in a can or bag or a prepackaged tub. I opened up everything, drained the fruit and then started mixing. You start by mixing Cool Whip with some vanilla yogurt. When that is combined, you fold in the rest: coconut, maraschino cherries, mandarin oranges, crushed pineapple, mini-marshmallows and some pecans. Then you let it chill in your ice box (as they would say in the fifties, or as my Mom still says).
I will say that as far as preparation and clean up goes, it’s a breeze. You clean up the cans and recycle, you wash out the cool whip tub and you are pretty much finished. I served it after dinner in some fancy holiday glasses hoping to give everything a little more cheer. I knew Lola would not like this. She knew it was ambrosia day, but she wasn’t quite sure what it was (she was expecting Jell-O). The first thing she said was, “That’s an Egg Nog Glass!” So it was, but I just wanted to be festive. Then she asked me what she was eating. I told her. Her face was not one of exuberance. She took a tiny bite and then she was out immediately. She was not having it.
Ok, so it wasn’t that bad. It really wasn’t. Cool Whip is always good and you definitely get some in every bite. The coconut finds it way into almost every bite as well and that’s not too bad either. The chopped pecans, which were actually the only fresh ingredient, were my favorite. They gave it a nice fresh, sweet crunch. The marshmallows weren’t bad either although I made the mistake of using a package of marshmallows that I had purchased in the summer. At some point, even though I never opened them, they had melted slightly in the package so they came out in clumps for this recipe. Maybe if they were not melted, they would have distributed more equally throughout. When you came to the fruit, that’s when things get a little sketch. The pineapple wasn’t so bad and it was finely chopped so melded together with everything. But when you hit a mini orange or a cherry, you got the full squirt of that flavor, and I am not a huge fan. I’ll take fresh fruit all day, but oranges from a can? No thanks. And I’m never a fan of maraschino cherries either (which I found out are sometime bad for folks with nut allergies thanks to almond extract in the marinade). I could have done without those entirely. But all in all, it wasn’t the worse thing I’ve ever eaten. Really.
So I survived ambrosia. I learned how to appreciate something today that goes against what you usually define as tasty. Fresh ingredients can never be beat, but if you put this salad in historic perspective and where it comes from, it’s kind of like a little adventure back in time. That’s worth celebrating. It’s worth honoring the ingenuity of that generation as well. They’d probably be equally disgusted with seeing fresh marrow on a menu today or even with $5 pumpkin lattes. We have to always be aware of history and what got us to where we are. If that means eating a whipped cream covered mandarin orange from time to time, I think I’ll survive.
Next Up: National Cocoa Day