My now ex-husband met his first ambrosia salad at a buffet in Aberdeen, Mississippi, after Sunday school at my grandparent’s church. He’d grown up in Virginia and Florida, two states that can be — but aren’t always — captial-S Southern. His father lived near DC and his mother, who had converted to Judaism when he was an infant, was from Pennsylvania, meaning the finer points of after-church buffets remained alien to him. “Shouldn’t that be with the desserts?” he asked, gesturing towards the table with individual plates of chocolate pie and bowls of wafer-topped banana pudding. “No,” I said, quite aware of the ever-growing line behind us. “It’s good. Take some and keep moving.” He did not take any.
Growing up, we never called it “ambrosia.” We called it “salad” or, if there was a need for further specificity, “cherry salad,” because my grandmother made hers with canned cherry pie filling. It was sweet and fluffy and filled with fruit, but it was not dessert. We ate it with the rest of our savoury meal, a pale pink pile of fluff next to the butter beans and ham (or turkey).
Out of all the various dishes my people call “salads,” I think the fluffy ones — as opposed to the gelatinized ones — are the best. I’ve eaten ambrosia (or ambrosia-like “salad”) on Thanksgiving and Christmas and at various buffets after Sunday school. I love it. I had a lot of textural issues as a child, and could not stomach anything gelatinized, so the whipped topping-based salads were often the only ones I could eat at church suppers and the like. One time I tried to branch out and try a “pear salad,” but mayo on a canned pear was too much, even for me.
Ambrosia means “food of the gods,” and it was originally a simple, fruit-forward dish. According to Serious Eats, the first version of the salad (published in a cookbook in 1867) contained nothing more than “pulped oranges,” freshly grated coconut, and sugar, layered together and finished with a final layer of coconut on top. That original went on quite a journey over the ensuing century and a half. Oranges and coconuts became more readily available to people all over the country, allowing home cooks and confectioners to put their own spin on it. Commercially available marshmallow fluff changed the game, though now it’s much more common to find it studded individual mini marshmallows, with whipped topping as a base.
The version my family makes and eats today has nothing in common with its three-ingredient ancestor, which may be why we never call it “ambrosia.” It only has four ingredients: cherry pie filling, Eagle brand condensed milk, crushed pineapple, and a tub of Cool Whip. It is not fancy, but it tastes happy. It is sweet and tangy and fluffy, and one could argue it serves a similar function to cranberry sauce (though it’s not quite as good of palate cleanser). It does nothing to help cut through the fat of a holiday meal, but it does offer a sweet, sweet counterpoint to all the salt.
The best way to enjoy cherry salad, or ambrosia, or one of ambrosia’s Jell-O based cousins, is to quit trying to make it make sense. Cherry salad is about joy, and sweetness, and excess. There is an illicit thrill in eating something that should, by anyone’s standards, be considered a dessert alongside the rest of your savoury meal. But it’s an even bigger thrill to serve it (without comment or explanation) to someone who is not from The South. They then have a choice to make: They can except joy into their life, or they keep their plate 100% savoury and miss out on something special, like my ex-husband did nearly 15 years ago.
I have two recipes for you to try. One is my grandmother’s cherry salad, which she wrote out in longhand and printed in a spiral-bound cookbook that she gave to all of her grandchildren for Christmas a few years before she passed. The other is a more traditional ambrosia from Vaughn Stafford Grey, which we published over the summer as part of no-cook desserts roundup, even though I have never eaten ambrosia or any of its kin as a dessert.
You are welcome and encouraged to tweak both, as their loose, cloud-like nature means you don’t have to worry about doing any structural damage. Put pecan halves and coconut in (and on) the cherry salad, use canned pineapple in your ambrosia if you don’t feel like chopping, and feel free to add or subtract fruits, nuts, and mini marshmallows as you see fit. Ambrosia wouldn’t be what it is today without riffing, though the original doesn’t sound too bad.
Grandmother Jewel’s Cherry Salad
- 1 600 g can of cherry pie filling
- 1 400 g can of sweetened condensed milk
- 1 250 g can of crushed pineapple
- 1 450 g of whipped cream
Mix pie filling, condensed milk, and pineapple (with its juices) together in a large bowl. Fold in the Cool Whip or whipped cream, then cover with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least an hour before serving.
Vaughn’s Tropical Ambrosia
- 2 cups shredded coconut, divided into 1½ and 1/2 cup portions
- 2 cups ½-inch pineapple chunks
- 2 cups quartered strawberries
- 2 cups ½-inch apricot chunks
- 2 cups peeled, ½-inch kiwi chunks
- 2 cups peeled, ½-inch mango chunks
- 1 425 g can of mandarin orange slices, drained (approximately 2 cups)
- Zest of one lemon
- 2 tablespoons Malibu rum
- 1½ cups heavy whipping cream (for a vegan option, use coconut whipping cream)
- 2 tablespoons powdered (icing) sugar
- 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt (trust me)
- 2 cups mini marshmallows (for a vegan option, use gelatin-free marshmallows)
Toast ½ cup of the shredded coconut in a skillet over medium heat. Set aside to cool.
Wash fresh fruit, peel where necessary, cut, and place in a large mixing bowl. Add drained mandarin orange slices, lemon zest, and Malibu rum. Toss and set aside.
Using a stand or hand mixer, whip cream for about three minutes until the consistency resembles foam. Then add the powdered ginger, sugar, vanilla, and pinch of salt, and continue whipping until stiff peaks form (another two to three minutes). Do not over mix.
Place the fruit, whipped cream, and marshmallows in a large bowl and gently fold until the fruit is enrobed in the whipped cream mixture.
Pop it in the fridge to get nice and cold before serving.