How Ambrosia Became a Southern Christmas Tradition

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There's a surprising history behind this sticky classic. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Christmas is rapidly approaching, so it's time to say a word or two about ambrosia.

You do know ambrosia, right? That big bowl filled with a sweet, gooey white mass that's studded with little orange slices, yellow pineapple, and bright red maraschino cherries? Though not as ubiquitous as it once was, for many Southerners ambrosia is a traditional Christmas-time dish, a fixture of family gatherings and restaurant buffets.

Is it a dessert or a salad? Should one use coconut or not? What about marshmallows or whipped cream? What variety of fruit should it have? There's no real consensus on what what constitutes ambrosia these days, and what one family considers "traditional" others would look on as a bizarre adulteration.

For those acquainted with ambrosia, the very name, a reference to the food of the gods in Greek mythology, inspires wildly varying emotions. For some, it evokes wistful nostalgia for their grandparents' old recipes. For others, like these two brothers profiled a few years ago by NPR, it dredges up dreadful memories of culinary horrors from Christmases past.

With its pineapples, pecans, and coconut, ambrosia is full of ingredients Southerners love, but how did it come to exist at all, and why did it become a Southern Christmas tradition?

Oranges & Coconuts: The Original Ambrosia

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We can't say for sure, but it's possible ambrosia first appeared in the South. The earliest written reference to the dish that I've been able to find is in an 1867 cookbook entitled Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years, which was written by Maria Massey Barringer of Concord, North Carolina. Barringer's recipe for ambrosia is quite basic: "Grate the white part of the cocoanut [sic], sweeten with a little sugar, and place in a glass bowl, in alternate layers with pulped oranges, having a layer of cocoanut on top. Serve in ice-cream plates or saucers."

But recipes for ambrosia were published quite widely in the 1870s in syndicated cooking and household columns that appeared in newspapers from Holton, Kansas, to Newport, Rhode Island, and none of them make any reference to the dish having Southern origins or being particularly popular in the South. Almost all of these early recipes call for the same basic combination of sliced oranges, grated coconut, and sugar layered in a glass bowl or dish. These recipes appear all throughout the year and do not seem to have a particular linkage to Christmas or any other holidays.

The appearance and rapid proliferation of the dish seems driven by the sudden availability of its "exotic" base ingredients. Oranges and other citrus fruits had been grown in South Carolina and Georgia since the Colonial era, but a series of harsh freezes in the 1830s moved citrus growing permanently southward to Florida. Orange production increased sharply after the Civil War, rising from one million boxes per year in the late 1860s to five million per year in 1893. At the same time, new railroad networks linked Florida to markets to the north, making oranges more widely available and less expensive.

Coconuts became more available around the same time, thanks to the newly completed railroads linking the West Coast with the east. "With each year," the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1876, "the demand for the cocoanut [sic] increases." Small ships arrived regularly in the San Francisco harbor from Tahiti, Hawaii, and South America, their holds filled with coconuts, which were either shipped whole to the Eastern states or processed by one of the several small factories in the city that grated and canned the meat "for household and confection purposes."

For 19th century diners, a bowl of ambrosia presented luxurious and somewhat exotic flavors. Though we don't know who had the original idea, it's easy to see how someone decided to label it with the name of the food of the gods.

The Makings of a Christmas Tradition

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What started off as a simple three-ingredient dish soon took on new variations. In the 1880s, recipes started popping up that included sliced pineapple along with the oranges. A few add the instruction "serve with whipped cream," and others call for adding a little sherry or Madeira to the layers of fruit. By the early 1900s, many had expanded the dish into more of a fruit salad. In her Original Buckeye Cookbook (1905), for instance, Estelle Wilcox's ambrosia includes oranges, bananas, pineapple, strawberries, along with grated coconut and some orange and lemon juice poured over the top.

Most cooks, though, still used the the basic preparation of orange, coconut, and sugar, and in the early 20th century that combination became closely associated with Christmas in the South. That it would makes sense: at the time, ambrosia was a pretty fancy dish, the kind of luxurious treat that would be an obvious pick for a family celebration. Florida orange season began in the late fall, so in December fresh oranges would have just become available in the markets.

What isn't as obvious is why ambrosia and Christmas became so tightly linked in the South but not in other parts of the country. The ingredients were available nationally, and the recipe was widely published in cookbooks, newspapers, and magazines across the country. Cooks in the Northeast and Midwest continued to make and serve ambrosia, but it was only in the South that it became a standard item on the holiday menu.

In December 1922, the "Society Events of the Week" page of the in Columbia State newspaper recorded three separate holiday dinners in South Carolina at which ambrosia was served. Mr. and Mrs. Jack Self of Florence hosted a three-course Christmas dinner for friends, "beginning with a cocktail and ending with ambrosia, coffee, and whipped cream." Mr. and Mrs. M. C. Woods of Marion hosted a holiday party for "the college set" at which "ambrosia and cake were served at a late hour." In Bamberg, the Apollo Music Club was entertained by a "tacky party" where the guests dressed in "ridiculous costumes" and the refreshments included "ambrosia and cake."

In 1931, the Evening Star of Washington, D.C. ran an article datelined Atlanta describing the holiday preparations in Georgia, where residents were planning to celebrate "in that all-Southern way with feasts, fasts, reunions and gifts." In the countryside, that meant "freshly killed pork and stacks of hot biscuits loaded on a plate like cord wood and topped off with pies and boiled custard make a favorite meal...The city folk will have their bought turkey and ambrosia."

Three years later in the same newspaper, Lucy Eberly provided a recipe for ambrosia, which she insisted must be made with fresh coconut and noted, "Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner would never seem quite complete without it."

In the 1930s, more and more accounts appear that refer to ambrosia as a traditional Southern holiday dish, and the timing of their memories suggests that it was around the turn of the 20th century that this association began.

In 1934, Mrs. S. R. Dull included ambrosia in her syndicated column on recipes for "old Southern favorites" and noted that in decades past "the weekend before Christmas brought busy days...The holidays brought lots of visitors, both young and old, and the hostess always served refreshments—mostly cake, of every kind and flavor, accompanied by something else good, such as syllabub, ambrosia, Spanish cream, and other good things."

That same year in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mrs. S. Y. Allen remembered "A Christmas of Forty Years" ago and provided a menu for the dinner, which featured ham, roast turkey, and oyster dressing, with ambrosia, pound cake, and coffee for dessert. In providing her family's ambrosia recipe to the Portland Oregonian in 1939, Mrs. W. L. Owen commented, "Down in Mobile, Alabama, where I lived as a child, we always had Ambrosia for Christmas dinner dessert. It would not have been Christmas without it."

Maybe the Gods Had Sweet Teeth: Ambrosia Evolves

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Ad for Whitman's Marshmallow Whip, 1920.

The original form of ambrosia was very much a product of the 19th century, when the sheer novelty of formerly exotic foods was enough to make such a dish special. The addition of other tropical fruits like pineapple or bananas seems a natural enhancement. During the 20th century, though, cooks began incorporating more modern and sweeter components, and none was more transformative than the marshmallow.

That sweet, sticky substance dates back to early 19th century France, when confectioners starting whipping and sweetening the sap of the marsh mallow plant and using it in candies. Over time, the French shifted to using egg whites or gelatin and cornstarch as the base, and the ingredient became popular in the United States in the early 20th century.

At first, there wasn't a discrete thing called "a marshmallow," because it was, like peanut butter or caramel, more of a substance that you used in candies and desserts. Soft and sticky, marshmallow was difficult to cut into desired size pieces either by manufacturers or by cooks trying to incorporate the product into recipes.

Around World War I, Stephen F. Whitman & Son of Philadelphia introduced "Marshmallow Whip," a jarred marshmallow product that they advertised widely "for use in preparing dainty desserts with marshmallow flavor." Whitman's regularly included in their advertisements recipes for things that could be made with their new product, like ice cream sundaes and grape parfaits. In 1926, in what may have been an early form of paid "native advertising," the company's product appeared in a series of syndicated columns providing recipes that incorporated marshmallow whip.

One of them was for ambrosia, and it called for mixing any three or four of a long list of fruits (oranges, grapefruit, bananas, maraschino cherries, grapes, stewed figs, strawberries, and cherries) along with "marshmallow whipped cream," which was a heaping tablespoon of Marshmallow Whip beaten with one egg white. Coconut is conspicuously missing from the recipe.

Around the same time, inventors were tinkering with new machines and processes for producing marshmallows in discrete pieces, and tins filled with the familiar cylindrical marshmallow shape we know today started hitting the market. The Whitman company was by no means the only one to find marshmallow a good way to dress up a favorite old fruit concoction. Starting in the late 1920s and increasing in the 1930s, recipes appeared all across the country—from the Santa Cruz Evening News to the Brooklyn Eagle—that incorporated marshmallows into ambrosia in some form.

In June 1936, for instance, the Omaha World Herald ran a recipe for ambrosia that called for a mixture of white cherries, canned pineapple, and marshmallows with whipped cream folded in. That same year, Miss Sydney Alexander of Sterlington, Louisiana, contributed an ambrosia recipe to the Monroe Star that called for sliced oranges, a half pound of marshmallows, a cup of heavy cream, sugar, and lemon juice. "Coconut may be added," she notes at the end, but many of the early recipes that include marshmallow omit coconut and sugar altogether, presumably because the marshmallows would have provided sweetness and texture on their own.

Over time, many more modern innovations were applied to ambrosia. In 1950, the Record-Chronicle of Denton, Texas, prescribed a summer version of ambrosia that used a package of orange flavored gelatin, grated orange rind, and orange juice along with a package of shredded coconut and chilled and whipped evaporated milk. The Dallas Morning News offered a "baked ambrosia" in 1960 that called for a can of fruit cocktail, bananas, miniature marshmallows, canned crushed pineapple, and grated coconut to be mixed in a pan and baked in a 350 degree oven until the coconut was browned.

By the time I remember encountering ambrosia in the 1970s and 1980s, its nature could vary widely, from a sort of expansive fruit salad with lots of citrus and non-citrus fruits tossed with coconut all the way to strange, bright orange concoctions made with flavored gelatin, canned whipped cream, and plenty of marshmallows. There were still traditionalists (including my own mother) who made the classic mixture of fresh sliced oranges, grated coconut, and a sprinkling of sugar. The most hardcore insisted on cracking and grating fresh coconut for the dish. But a survey of recipes from cookbooks from this period reveals countless permutations of fruits (including cherries, dates, papayas, peaches, and pears), creamy elements (like mayonnaise, sour cream, or even cream cheese), and flavorings (like rum, grenadine, or almonds).

These days, the gooey and sweet marshmallow-laced version seems to have emerged as the standard. If you Google ambrosia recipe, the top results all include marshmallows, oranges, and pineapple along with coconut and some sort of thick, creamy binder: sour cream, heavy cream, whipped cream, yogurt, or "frozen whipped topping."

Reinventing Ambrosia

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In previous installments of this series on iconic Southern food, we've looked at how chefs and cookbook writers have looked to both the distant and recent Southern culinary past and tried to rediscover and reinvent everything from pimento cheese to country captain. It seems only natural that folks are taking a crack at "rescuing" ambrosia, too.

One approach is to push aside all the cans and jars and get back to using fresh citrus, and the more variety the better. In My New Orleans: The Cookbook (2009), the noted Louisiana chef John Besh offers a version of ambrosia that incorporates three kinds of oranges (satsuma, navel, and blood), grapefruit, grapes, kumquats, sugarcane syrup, coconut, and mint. "My grandmother wouldn't make Ambrosia this way," he notes, "but then she didn't have Ben Becnel's citrus farm in Plaquemines Parish nearby."

Besh's version is a cheffy take on the traditional fruit-and-coconut style ambrosia, but other reformers are taking their cues directly from the creamy, marshmallow-laced versions, and they're getting downright creative with the ingredients they use.

"The original ambrosia calls for tangerine segments, canned pineapple chunks, mini-marshmallows, shredded coconut, and mayonnaise," write Matt and Ted Lee in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (2006). "We've reinvented it from top to bottom." That means fresh grapefruit and navel oranges, chopped celery, avocado, and cucumber flavored with fresh basil and jalapeno and tossed in a buttermilk-lime dressing with two tablespoons of shredded coconut.

Chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville also replaces the sweet marshmallow-and-whipped cream binder with a more savory dressing. "Most people think of ambrosia salad as a cloud of chunky white fruit in a glass bowl with neatly arranged canned mandarins on top," he writes in his cookbook Smoke and Pickles (2013). "But we've evolved since those dark ages, and it's high time this salad got a makeover."

Lee's version takes the fruit uptown: supremed orange, grapefruit, Champagne mangos, and Anjou pears. He calls not just for fresh-shredded coconut but a bit of the coconut water, too. Ground cardamom and pitted dates add a few unconventional flavors, but what's most radical is the dressing: a blend of blue cheese, buttermilk, and sour cream.

We live in a puzzling time. On the one hand, we have ambitious diners yearning for subtle, unexpected flavors—blending savory with sweet, incorporating exotic, fragrant notes of cardamom and basil. Many others still prefer to wallow in the cheap, sensory blast of gooey marshmallows and sugar-soaked cherries. It's hard to imagine a time when something as simple as layers of sliced oranges, grated coconut, and a touch of sugar could so delight diners that they declared it food fit for the gods.

But, that's exactly what they did. Perhaps it's worth us doing the same this Christmas. Pick up a bag of oranges and a whole coconut and see if you can recreate that old magic. You may not even need the marshmallows.