FOOD OF THE GODS
Ambrosia, in ancient Greece, was the food of the gods, a comestible so divine that a mere taste of it would render a human immortal. Aphrodite perfumed herself with ambrosia to enhance her seductive powers. When Psyche, a mortal, married Eros, a god, Jupiter fed her ambrosia, and Athena gave Heracles ambrosia when he joined the gods on Mount Olympus. When invited to dine with the gods Tantalus, a son of Zeus, attempted to steal ambrosia to share with mortals and was punished with eternal damnation. What can ambrosia have in common with my Mother’s favorite holiday fruit salad composed of canned Mandarin orange sections, canned pineapple bits, canned fruit salad, shredded sweetened coconut, miniature marshmallows, maraschino cherries and Miracle Whip mayonnaise? Clearly not a long life expectancy.
Ambrosia salad, considered by some a refreshing follow up to fried chicken, has been a southern holiday staple at least since the last quarter of the 19th century. Oranges and other citrus fruits had been grown in Georgia and South Carolina since colonial times, but a series of harsh winters in the 1830s pushed citrus growers south into Florida. Orange production increased after the Civil War, and new railroads linked Florida to markets further north. At about the same time, new railroads linked California to the East, carrying coconuts from Hawaii, Tahiti and South America. Dried coconut was known in the United States in the 1830s, and by the early 20th century it was extremely popular.
Ambrosia was an exotic dish at the beginning of the 20th century and, since the Florida orange season began in late fall, oranges would have reached Southern markets by Christmas. Marshmallows appeared in the 1920s and, by the 1930s, were called for in numerous ambrosia recipes. Canning also arrived in the late 1800s and mayonnaise, known in the United States in the early 1900s, was not commercially available until mid century. What may have begun life as a salad of fresh fruit, freshly grated coconut and a splash of sherry probably reached marshmallowy excess during the 1950s.
Ambrosia aside, most fruit salads are simple affairs that succeed based on the freshness of the fruit (make them when the fruit is in season, and choose fruit that is perfectly ripe) and on the inventiveness of the combinations and dressings. Some, like ambrosia, can be served as a side for breakfast (eliminate the booze) or dinner or, in a pinch, as an informal dessert (increase the booze).