The Retro Salad I Haven't Been Able to Stop Thinking About
It won't make you immortal, but ambrosia salad just might help you make sweet memories that'll last a lifetime.
The sun had set hours before, and we were relying on my grandma’s outdoor sconce to see. Sitting at a small table on her second-floor back porch along with my cousin, the three of us played cards for hours, shuffling and dealing and eating bowl after bowl of salad. Torn romaine isn’t your typical game-night food, I know, but olive oil and vinegar had never tasted better; we couldn’t stop asking her to refill the communal bowl. One bite of a simply dressed salad still transports me back to that warm night in “the city,” almost 30 years later.
These seemingly random food memories pop up in little pockets throughout my days more often than not, and I can’t help but think this is a commonality among many of us. Because, no matter where you grew up, food is something we all share — we all eat, every day. You may not attach sentimental value to warm toast, butter pecan ice cream, crusty Italian bread and chilled ambrosia salad like I do, but I’m sure at least a few treasured bites just crossed your mind.
Oh, ambrosia salad … now there’s a cool, creamy (but, you know, slightly chunky) dish I associate solely with holiday weekends, real special food occasions. It was never made "just because" when I was growing up, and I'm willing to bet that is the case with most households. On the surface it sounds like a strange combination: Mix dairy and fruit, sometimes even nuts, and then throw in some coconut?
But I think it's perfect.
I hold plenty of ambrosia salad memories, always with potluck dishes spread across a picnic table. I can picture 10-year-old me scooping a big, colorful spoonful onto a thick paper plate. Visions flash through my mind of all the family: the aunts and uncles I now realize I haven’t seen in years, my redheaded brother toddling in the grass, my Italian grandparents that my children will never get to meet.
According to Greek mythology and The New Food Lover's Companion, "ambrosia (meaning 'immortality') was the food of the gods on Mt. Olympus [sic]. More recently the word designates a dessert of chilled fruit (usually oranges and bananas) mixed with coconut."
Some say ambrosia was created at Arnaud's restaurant in New Orleans shortly after Prohibition ended, but the salad’s history has, in fact, been traced back to cookbooks in the late 1860s. Early recipes were simple, calling for only oranges, coconut and sugar, but they quickly evolved as more ingredients (think pineapple and whipped cream) became widely available and less expensive in the United States.
It's common for an ambrosia salad to grace the Christmas dinner table in the South, though whether it is a side or a dessert is another story. (For the record, I'm team side dish.) And why this dish became so prevalent in my formative years is beyond me; I grew up in the Catskills, and that side of the family I associate with whipping up an ambrosia salad for a family gathering? Italian New Yorkers.
Food Network Kitchen's Ambrosia Salad (pictured above) is filled with all the goodness I remember: diced pineapple, mandarin oranges, mini marshmallows, shredded sweetened coconut, whipped cream.
Lucky for us, all of those ingredients are now readily available at the grocery store, so reserving this sweet dish for a long weekend seems preposterous to me. You can fold it all together in a quick half-hour, and you can even make it ahead. (The fridge will do most of the work for you.)
While I've yet to hear of mere mortals eating ambrosia as a main dish, I won't fault you if you'd like to give it a try. This recipe deserves a spot on your dinner table regardless of who's in town. But if your grandma would like to make the retro recipe with you, that just might make the finished product even better.
Oh, and if anyone knows how to play asso piglia tutto, let me know. I’ll get the cards. I can almost feel the vinyl tablecloth now.
More Ambrosia Salad Recipes to Try