How Ambrosia Became a Southern Holiday Tradition
The word "ambrosia" gets tossed around very casually these days, often in reference to foods that may not quite deserve it. A quick Google search turns up ambrosial spelt-and-barley soup, ambrosial corn dogs, and ambrosial oatmeal.
Ambrosia means "food of the gods." In Greek and Roman mythology, it referred to magical victuals with the power to bestow immortality on anyone who tasted them. But that was a long time ago in a magical kingdom far, far away.
Today, as most food historians agree, ambrosia belongs to the South. When it is mentioned, many think of the holiday table and a serving dish filled to the brim with a fluffy, fruit-studded concoction rather than visions of eternal life. Or they go even further back in time to a crystal bowl containing a vivid, sweet mélange of oranges and coconut.
Recipes for this original version—layers of fresh citrus, sugar, and coconut—began appearing in cookbooks back in the late 19th century. How ambrosia became a beloved dish in our region remains vague. Many believe that the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which made it easier to obtain fresh coconuts and winter oranges practically anywhere, had a lot to do with it becoming a special treat during the winter holidays.
Since then, of course, the old-fashioned dish has been bedazzled with maraschino cherries and pineapple—and made richer with whipped cream, mayonnaise, and sour cream, which may be why some people consider it to be a salad and others a dessert. In the 1920s, Whitman's Marshmallow Whip, a jarred marshmallow creme, hit shelves. Recipes using the product soon followed, including one for ambrosia.
If you ask a native Southerner of a certain age, they'll tell you about the ritual of cracking, peeling, and grating the coconut. "You must not use canned cocoanut [sic]," wrote Mary D. Pretlow in her 1930 book Old Southern Recipes. But in 1949, the towering American culinary figure (and native Oregonian) James Beard wrote in The Fireside Cook Book: "The moist canned coconut is the best for [ambrosia]."
However you like your ambrosia—a simple showcase of fresh citrus, a fruit-filled cloud, or in one of these sophisticated desserts—it has earned its spot on the Southern sideboard.
Emily Nunn is the author of The Comfort Food Diaries and The Department of Salad, a newsletter dedicated to all things salad-related.