For many Southerners, ambrosia salad is a dish often associated with holiday potlucks or aunts and grandmothers. It occasionally gets a bad rap, along with the often-maligned fruitcake, but when prepared correctly it can be light and delicious. The dividing line between love and hate seems to be one ingredient: coconut. But, this much is clear – ambrosia salad absolutely must include coconut.
Ambrosia salad also has a bit of an identity crisis. Depending on your family’s prerogative, it might be considered a salad, but it may also be considered a dessert. It is a fruit dish so, depending on preparation, it can be light, like a salad. Other recipes are sweeter and include layers of whipped cream or even marshmallows, placing it clearly in the “sweets” category. My family always placed it in a different spot in the buffet line, depending on which aunt had prepared the dish.
The word “ambrosia” means delicious or fragrant. Ambrosia was also the magical fruit of the gods in ancient Greek mythology. The gods on Mount Olympus ate ambrosia to maintain immortality and without it, they became weak. In Homer’s Iliad, the gods bathed in ambrosia and used it as perfume. And, though we are free to enjoy ambrosia today, mythology dictated that mortals would face death if they dared to eat the gods’ ambrosia or drink their divine nectars. (Truth be told, some of my cousins did act like eating any dish containing coconut would absolutely kill them.)
Ambrosia began appearing in cookbooks in the late 1800s when citrus fruit became more prevalent in markets across the country. These early recipes were very simple, usually including only orange slices, coconut, and sugar layered in a glass dish. As ambrosia’s popularity grew, many versions began to emerge, often with conflicting advice. For instance, Mary D. Pretlow’s Old Southern Recipes warned, “You must not use canned cocoanut,” while James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book said, “The moist canned coconut is best for this.”
Southern cooks, in particular, began to transform this dish into a more diverse fruit salad. I’ve been served ambrosia prepared traditionally, but also with grapefruit, banana, pineapple, maraschino cherries, raisins, nuts, and marshmallows. I’ve seen it topped with sugar, whipped cream, yogurt, and, once, mayonnaise (yes, really). I asked our café to develop their own recipe for ambrosia (pictured below). The result: a delicious coconut milk tapioca soup with citrus compote and vanilla bean shortbread. This take is far from traditional, but the flavors are all there – coconut, citrus, and a hint of sweet vanilla. Regardless of the ingredients, ambrosia salad is best served on the day of preparation. The sugar can cause the oranges (and other fruits used) to release their juices and the dish can turn to mush in a matter of hours.
One of my favorite Southern cooks, Virginia Willis, offers a delicious, more traditional version of ambrosia in her cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company. She tells a beautiful story of preparing the dish with her sister and grandfather for her grandmother, who loved ambrosia. And, for the record, she advocates using fresh coconut, not canned. Find her recipe – and instructions for properly preparing fresh coconut – here.