Recipe: Ambrosia Salad
By Chrissy Pardo
Hello Hapa Mag readers!
My name is Chrissy. The idea for this column stems from my fascination with mid-century American recipes, once popular with pearl-wearing white ladies like the ones you'd see in Mad Men (the wives and Joan, not Peggy. Please. Peggy probably had beans out of a can and cigarettes for dinner most nights). These are recipes that, if you're a half-white American Hapa like me, one of your grandmothers served up to your mom or dad on a tray in the living room while they watched The Beverly Hillbillies. Some of these recipes are still known and beloved today, like meatloaf and Swedish meatballs. Some of these recipes did not stand, like salmon mousse and aspics. I plan on exploring a wide range of these recipes here.
In today’s column, I’m taking a look at a mixture of canned fruits, marshmallows, coconut, and fruit that has perplexed me for most of my life: ambrosia salad. So many questions—Why is it called "salad"? Why does it have mini marshmallows in it, especially if it's a salad? Who thought this was a good idea? Today, I hope that this ambrosia salad recipe answers some of these questions, but I have a feeling I will end this article even more confused than I am now.
Ambrosia salad originated in the American South. The first record of its existence is in an 1867 cookbook called Dixie Cookery; Or How I Managed the Table for Twelve Years by Philadelphia native, Maria Amanda Massey Barringer, who moved to North Carolina at a young age. It is said she authored this book to correct any Northern misconceptions about Southern cooking, solidifying ambrosia's Southern legacy. As America expanded farther west during this time, the railroad was able to transport uncommon ingredients such as citrus and coconut to citizens back east, and thus the ambrosia (which is a word referring to the food of the gods in Greek mythology) was borne out of fascination with these exotic foods. The earliest recipes simply consisted of layered coconut, oranges, and sugar.
In my research, I was unable to pinpoint exactly when ambrosia exploded into the pineapple and cream laden monstrosity that it is known as today. But in the early 20th century, a marketing campaign by Philly-based confectionary Stephen F. Whitman & Son hyped adding marshmallow whip into the mix, followed by the brand new invention of mass-produced whole marshmallows in the 1920s. Over the next 30 years, cooks started to tweak their recipes to include anything from grapes to pecans, and even different creams like cream cheese or sour cream (which I have included in my recipe below). I even encountered some recipes that included Jell-O. Are you drooling yet? No? Me neither.
Since its inception, ambrosia salad has been seen on Christmas tables widely across the South, at least for the first half of the 20th century or so. Up north, it wasn't as popular, but it did appear on a couple party spreads at my family's house, growing up in the 1990s in Pennsylvania. Oddly enough, my mom, who was born in the Philippines a few years after the Americans left her country, made the dish. Her mid-century post-colonial upbringing may explain her knowledge of ambrosia salad.
After all the research I did for the writing of this piece, I can't say my appreciation for the exotic and wacky ambrosia salad has increased. While my husband Dan and I shopped for ingredients, he shook his head as we headed to check out, saying, "This is the grocery store equivalent of buying condoms at CVS. I feel like I need to throw something else in the cart to save myself the embarrassment." As for the taste itself… well, it's super SWEET and overly creamy, both of which are completely contrary to my (half) Asian tendencies. Many recipes online have you make your whipped cream yourself. I skipped this step because neither you nor I have the 75 seconds to whip up cream for this stuff. I also chose to add sour cream to my recipe, because I needed some way to balance the cloyingly sweety-sweetness of these canned fruits. With that in mind, you may wonder why I chose canned fruit in syrup for my concoction. Well, I did this because America is a beautiful place where such atrocities are always readily available, and in a recipe like this, you have to take advantage of such gifts. Hey, I never claimed these recipes would be good.
1 15-ounce can mandarin oranges, drained
1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained
1 10-ounce can maraschino cherries, drained
1 cup sweetened coconut
1 cup mini marshmallows
½ cup sour cream, room temperature
½ tub Cool Whip, completely thawed
Set aside ¼ cup each of the oranges and pineapple, and keep separate. Also set aside a big spoonful of the cherries, as well as two tablespoons of the grated coconut. In your best large decorative bowl (bonus points if it's holiday-themed!), combine the fruits, coconut, and marshmallows, taking care to not destroy the gentle mandarin oranges. Then add the sour cream and the Cool Whip, folding gently to thoroughly combine. Take the remaining fruit and coconut and arrange into a pretty design on the top of the salad. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, but ideally overnight. Ambrosia salad is best served within 24 hours of making, or never.
Chrissy is a Manhattan based singer, actor, comedian, and amateur home cook with a love for kitsch and classic recipes. When she's not performing, you can find her vlogging and singing on her Youtube Channel "Chrissy Does Stuff", cooking up love in her tiny kitchen, or you may run into her as your negligent and jaded waitress on the UWS. She is wife to broadway music director and Youtuber, Dan Pardo. Insta: @chrissymcpardo