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When you hear the word ambrosia, you might think one of two things. You might think of the food the Greek gods were said to eat to preserve their immortality. However, if you grew up
in the southern United States the first thing to come to mind is
probably the creamy, fruity, and sometimes unintelligible
concoction you grew up seeing on buffet tables, church cookouts,
and Christmas dinners spent with grandparents. Today's ambrosia
fruit salad can include a wide variety of ingredients in a vast range
of combinations, but 150 years ago it was a simple dessert made by
layering less than a handful of ingredients. How did a basic (if expensive) dish
made up of only three ingredients evolve into the heavy, creamy mash of fruits, nuts, and gelatin one encounters today at any Southern pig-picking?
Ancient Food of Gods
The earliest reference to a foodstuff called ambrosia appears in texts from ancient Greece.(1)
The word “ambrosia” comes from a Greek word meaning “fragrant” or “delicious.” In some
myths, it was said to be the food the gods ate to keep themselves immortal. A food reserved
only for divinity, a human who tried to taste it would be put to death by the immortals for
daring to eat the holy food. While actual descriptions from ancient texts are vague as to what
ambrosia actually was, scholars over the centuries have developed theories based on study
and differing translations. Some theorize is was a fruit, similar to the apple in the Garden of
Eden in Christian-Judaeo beliefs.(2) Others think it was a honey-based food like mead or a
kind of porridge made with honey, fruits, and barley. Still, other interpretations believe it to
be a kind of divine herb or plant.(4)
The mythological ambrosia may have been an inspiration for the dish of the same name that
came about in American during the 1800s. The exact origins of the dish is a bit murky but the first
written recipe to call the dish by name is found in an 1867 cookbook Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years by Maria Massey Barringer of Concord, North
Carolina. The recipe calls for the meat of a
coconut to be grated and then sweetened with
sugar. Oranges are then peeled, segmented,
and the pulp removed. In a bowl, the oranges
and coconut are layered until gone and a
final layer of coconut is added to the top.
Barringer recommends serving in a glass bowl,
likely to show off the layers that make up the dish.(1) Other recipes for ambrosia
dating to this time period mostly stick to this rather strict and plain order of ingredients, though some substitute powdered sugar for granulated white sugar. These early recipes for ambrosia are similar to another dessert popular around this time called iced oranges, which were orange segments covered in white sugar or soaked in a simple syrup.(3)
While such a simple dish may seem rather underwhelming today, at Barringer's
time this would have been a rather lavish thing to serve. All three ingredients,
oranges, coconuts, and sugar, were expensive and hard to find ingredients in
America until fairly recently in U.S. history. When ambrosia recipes first began to
appear, coconuts and oranges were seen as exotic, time-sensitive, and costly
foods. Oranges could only be found locally grown in Florida, where the climate
was one of the few places in the U.S. that a few orange groves flourished. This
couldn't be said of the coconut, which had to find its slow way to the U.S. in
shipments from Hawaii, Tahiti, and South America. Sugar, too, was still a fairly
expensive ingredient, shipped from plantations in the Caribbean where
harvesting and processing were time-consuming, labor-intensive, and dangerous
to the usually enslaved workforce. All three foodstuffs had to be shipped over
long distances which increased the cost to buy them. To the 19th century diner, a
dish of such exports would have been considered luxurious and the cost of them
alone would have been enough to make even such a simple configuration special
enough to only be served at special occasions. It wasn't until after the American
Civil War that these foods began to become more affordable.(5)
After the Civil War ended in America, Florida orange groves
experienced a production boom and the fruit that had once been
very rare gradually became more common and more affordable.
When new railroad lines were installed across the country,
transportation took the now abundant oranges all over the nation.
Trains didn't just encourage orange consumption; railroads helped
the coconut as well. Shipped to western U.S. ports from South
America and the Pacific, coconuts were transported via the railway
system to markets all over the country.(5) Many cooks didn't even
have to worry about the painstaking process of breaking open and
processing coconuts themselves. Factories near the ports removed,
grated, and canned coconut meat for easy and longer-lasting
transportation to kitchens even on the opposite side of the country.(1) Thanks to this cross-country shipping system, exotic foods like oranges and coconuts could now be bought by more people all over America, not just the very wealthy.(5)
As the basic ingredients became both easier to find
and cheaper to buy, recipes for ambrosia started to
pop up in more cookbooks and publications across
the country. Known today mostly as a special treat
enjoyed especially in the southern states around
Christmas, early recipes didn't limit the dish to just
one holiday season and ambrosia was enjoyed by
people from north to south, east to west.(5) Many
historians believe that ambrosia remains such a
popular dish in the southern U.S. because it was
first invented there, based on the earliest written
recipe which comes from North Carolina. Whether it
came from the southern U.S. or not, ambrosia burst
in popularity all over the nation almost as soon as recipes were published
in cookbooks and newspaper columns. Its sudden growth in popularity was helped by the fact that the formerly exotic foods it called for were becoming easier to find,even though the dish itself was still considered relatively lavish for some time after it become more affordable to make.(1)
Ingredients in Abundance
It wasn't just advances in transportation that changed ambrosia. As
time passed, new technologies spurred to the production of more
foods in ever more convenient forms. Newly created refrigeration
technology allowed for better preservation and wider use of foods
that have a very short shelf-life including dairy products. With
refrigerators in the home, additions to ambrosia recipes, like
whipped cream, sour cream, cream cheese, and even mayonnaise,
were more commonly included. Other once-expensive foods also
started to become both cheaper and more readily available and they
too were added to the dish. Pineapple, which still remains a very
popular addition today, made its way in as an exotic addition. Other
recipes added liquors like sherry for extra flavor. The invention of
new industrial production methods in the early 1900s introduced
other foods to mass production, like marshmallows; they too found
their way into ambrosia and would eventually come to replace the shredded coconut and
added sugar in many recipes. Prepackaged foods and ready-to-use ingredients like flavored gelatin, gained popularity with the invention of “convenience foods” in the 1950s. Flavored gelatins were also added to what was by now a wildly different version of the simple orange and sugary coconut concoction.(5)
By the turn of the 20th Century, the orange-coconut-sugar luxury was outpaced
by a fruit salad mix that could have any number of fruits, dairy products, and
even liquors swimming within it.(1) During the early 1900s, recipes for ambrosia
were at their peak in popularity and while it has appeared in countless varieties
in cookbooks throughout the 20th Century into the modern era, the dish faced a
sharp decline after the first few decades of the 1900s.(5)
Today, recipes for ambrosia salad can vary highly. Every family and family member
seems to have their own way version. Most recipes share a common theme of fruity
ingredients in a creamy substance but what those exact ingredients are can be
up to the maker. Any number of fruits can be added: oranges still remain popular
but now share space with pineapple, cherries, bananas, strawberries, lemons,
grapefruit, grapes, figs, dates, and/or raisins just to name a few.(1,2,3) Many
recipes call for a non-fruity element, usually marshmallows, which never lost
their popularity, but also pecans, walnuts, almonds, and even alcohol like rum.(3) Flavored
gelatin began to make an appearance after the 1950s and it too can be found still in many
modern recipes in cubed form.(1) While marshmallows more or less replaced
shredded coconut in most cases, many cookbooks, especially in the south, make sure
to include coconut today as a crucial addition. For the creamy component, whipped
cream or whipped topping is very popular, but other dairy products can be sour
cream, yogurt, cream cheese, cottage cheese, pudding, and even mayonnaise.(3) The
addition of dairy to the dish means it has to be refrigerated until ready to serve and it
doesn't keep well. All the sugary additions can make the fruits quickly break down
until the whole dessert looks like a bowl of mush after only a day or two.(2)
A Christmas Tradition(?)
Around the early 1900s, ambrosia started to gain notoriety as a must-have dish on
the holiday table in the southern U.S. It's not sure how this came to be but there are
some theories. The expensive ingredients originally included would have limited its
serving to special occasions, like Christmas, though there is no mention of it being
solely a holiday treat in early recipes of ambrosia. Oranges grown in Florida would
have just come to markets around December prior to the age of globalization and
international trading. The serving of the dish at family gatherings and the timing of
the orange growing season may have just been a coincidence that evolved over time
to become a holiday staple. Why it was considered a southern tradition is less well
known. While the earliest recipe did come from North Carolina, recipes for ambrosia
were published all over the United States and it became a popular dish all over the
nation. It could be that its southern roots caused the dessert to persevere throughout
the ages even when it fell out of favor in the rest of the country.(1) However the
association came to be, ambrosia remains a popular addition in many Southern
buffets, family gatherings, barbecues, and holiday dinners.
Making the First Ambrosia
The desert many people have in mind who grew up eating ambrosia salad is probably similar to what I grew up with in North Carolina: a fluffy mix of fruits, whipped cream, gelatin, marshmallows, and shredded coconut. While that dessert is more or less a Southern staple, I wanted to try out the 19th-century recipe of layered oranges, coconut, and sugar. To tell the truth, I was always a little frightened of the ambrosia salads I always saw at potlucks and get-togethers as a child; the little old ladies from church would and did put anything and everything in there and I was never really sure if the whipped, fluffy topping was whipped cream or mayonnaise, or if that green piece of something was jello or celery. So, instead of conquering my childhood fear, I decided to try out the historic version instead. Since I was alone while making this and had no one to share it with, I made enough for one, but feel free to double the recipe (or more) to serve enough for a family gathering.
Statue of the Greek goddess Hebe, the goddess of youth who is often depicted carrying the nectar of ambrosia, said to be the substances that gave the gods immortality. Image credit:(1A)
Study of Oranges by J.E. Barclay, 1891. Image credit:(2B)
(Above)Coconuts being husked by hand in Puerto Rico, 1899. Image credit:(3C) (Below)An advertisement for the Pacific Railroad. Image credit:(5E)
Advertisement for Sunny South Fruit, 1874. Image credit:(6F)
A mid-1930s refridgerator. Image credit:(4D)
A variety of modern ambrosia salad, with marshmallows, pineapple, and oranges.
(Above)Another variety of ambrosia salad, this one a combination of oranges, grapefruit, cherries, and coconut. Image credit:(9I) (Below)A more involved ambrosia salad, with cherries, coconut, marshmallows, pecan pieces, pineapple, pudding, and whipped topping. Image credit:(8H)
Eat Your History! Makes 19th Century Ambrosia
(Based on the recipe from Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years (1867) by Maria Massey Barringer)
Makes two servings.
1. Gather your ingredients and hardware: -1 large orange -1 cup of shredded, unsweetened coconut -3 teaspoons of white sugar -bowl -knife -spoon
2. Peel the orange and separate the segments. Remove the outer casings of the individual segments.
3. In a bowl, place a layer of oranges until the bottom of the bowl is covered. Top with a layer of half of the coconut and half the sugar. Repeat with remaining oranges, coconut, and sugar.
4. Let sit in cool place for 30 minutes to an hour. It's not needed but I found it helped the coconut absorb some of the orange juices and the sugar to seep into th fruits.
5. Serve cool and enjoy!
Food score: 4/5. Surprisingly yummy. Nice, quick dessert with few ingredients. Will probably turn to it again as an easy snack. Definitely tastes better the longer it sits.
Originally posted 2018. Re-edited and published 2021.
(1)Moss, Robert. "How Ambrosia Became a Southern Christmas Tradition." Serious Eats. https://www.seriouseats.com/2014/12/ambrosia-southern-christmas-tradition.html (Accessed November 23, 2018).
(2)Alabama Chanin Journal Editors. "The History of Ambrosia." Alabama Chanin Journal. https://journal.alabamachanin.com/2013/12/the-history-of-ambrosia /(Accessed November 23, 2018).
(3)The Nibble Editors. "RECPE: Ambrosia Salad For Fall & Winter." The Nibble (blog). November 25, 2014. Accessed November 29, 2018. https://blog.thenibble.com/2014/11/25/tip-of-the-day-ambrosia-salad/
(4)Olver, Lynne. "Ambrosia." Food Timeline.org. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq.html#ambrosia (Accessed November 30, 2018).
(5)Porter Briggs Editors. "Ambrosia: Southern Food of the Gods." Porter Briggs. http://porterbriggs.com/ambrosia-southern-food-of-the-gods/ (Accessed November 30, 2018).
(1A)Mabel, Joe. "The Hebe Fountain in Eagles Park, Roseburg, Oregon, U.S. (circa 2002), features a replica of a sculpture of Hebe by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. A Hebe Fountain stood from 1908 to 1912 at the corner of Cass and Main in Roseburg; it was damaged by a runaway team of horses, never re-erected, and its whereabouts are unknown. The original 1908 fountain and sculpture was sponsored by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the 1895 Mental Health Club (now Roseburg Women's Club). This recent statue in Eagles Park is in part a tribute to that earlier statue." Digital image. Wikimedia. September 28, 2016. Accessed January 20, 2021. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roseburg,_Oregon_-_Hebe_Fountain_02.jpg
(2B)Barclay, J.E. "Study of oranges." Digital image. Library of Congress. 1891. Accessed January 20, 2021.
(3C)Strohmeyer and Wyman. "Husking the crop in a cocoanut [sic] forest, near Mayaguez, Porto Rico." Digital image. Library of Congress. August 22, 1899. Accessed January 20, 2021.
(4D)Harris and Ewing. "Refridgerator." Digital image. Library of Congress. 1936-37. Accessed January 20, 2021.
(5E)Schwarzenberger, Lippman. "Pacific railroad." Digital image. Library of Congress. 1862. Accessed January 20, 2021.
(6F)Graphic Company. "The Sunny South/The Graphic Co. lith., N.Y." Digital image. Library of Congress. 1874. Accessed January 20, 2021.
(7G)Flickr. "Ambrosia Salad." Digital image. Spoon University. Accessed January 20, 2021.
(8H)Flickr User Yi. "ambrosia salad." Digital image. Flickr. August 19, 2006. Accessed January 20, 2021.
(9I)Cowart, T. "Ambrosia." Digital image. Flickr. December 25, 2008. Accessed January 20, 2021.
Other photos belong to Jennifer Cottle (2018) and may be used with appropriate credit attached.