The other day I was engaged in something like water cooler chatter with co-workers (minus the water cooler). We were gathered around a basket of goodies someone had sent my boss as a thank you, and included in said basket was a bag of lemon drops. One of my fellow scavengers commented that she had to have them because they reminded her of her grandmother, who always carried an infinite supply of them in her purse. There was a brief round robin exchange of everything we could mentally pluck out of our grandmother’s purses (Tums and hand wipes for me), before we moved onto something more meaty: weird ass food that always made its way to family gathering spreads. You know what I’m talking about, that dish that no one likes, but for some reason has became mandatory, and let’s be honest, we’d be disappointed on some level if it ceased to make an appearance. I think these dishes are actually designed to be terrible to create a shared sense of loathing and heightened camaraderie.
At any rate, the first dish that came flying out of someone’s mouth was none other than ambrosia salad. My family never partook in this delicacy, but I remember the first time I encountered it a friends’ family gathering in high school. Someone was frantically running around because, heaven forbid, the ambrosia salad was not put out, and I was all like “What in the world is ambrosia salad?” Being the Latin high school scholar that I was, I was immediately dubious of this faux nectar of the gods, and once it was before me I was even more dubious. Pineapples? Marshmallows? Is that…cool whip? I politely scooped some onto my plate, only to regret the sweet, tropical infusion of my macaroni. Fortunately for me another co-worker had also never been subjected to this tropical delight, and as we were tasked with trying to explain to him what ambrosia salad entailed, it became more and more absurd. Someone piped in to say that they’re family version included jello and at that point we were all ready to stage a reunion menu coup.
The more I’ve thought about ambrosia salad since then, the funnier it has become. It’s even funnier to me because the only other thing that rates up there with ambrosia salad is fruitcake, and I love fruitcake. Yes, I’m admitting it here: I fucking love fruitcake. If you don’t, then you need to try my grandmother’s. You don’t know what you’re missing. The woman soaks it in brandy for at least 9 months, and those delicious green fruits (whatever they are, who even cares) will melt in your mouth. Don’t tell me your grandmother’s ambrosia salad will have the same effect on me. I really can’t take anything with colored marshmallows in it seriously.
More importantly, this whole rambling thought train really just left me pondering how in the world something like ambrosia salad came to be, i.e. what is the culinary history of this fluffy nightmare? Was this another half baked concoction marketed to the masses on a Jello box? To my surprise, it does actually have a lengthier history than I anticipated, and is allegedly a Southern Christmas staple. (I’m okay with the fact that my family latched onto cinnamon rolls instead.) Ambrosia salad began appearing in cookbooks in the late 1800’s when citrus fruits were more widely available, and the original recipes were simple fruit salads. The variations evolved from there. I’ll admit that some of the traditional Southern recipes don’t sound bad – nothing gooey, fresh coconut and fruits. I can get on board with that.
As this sticky mess continued to snowball, I realized that it was the marshmallow that really threw in the monkey wrench, and then I started to ponder how in the world marshmallows came on the scene. Apparently I am not the only one to go down this gummy rabbit hole. From “How Ambrosia Became a Southern Christmas Tradition“:
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.
Basically once people were bored with bananas, coconuts, and pineapples as “normal” exotic things in their life they moved on to marshmallows, or rather advertisers sweet-talked them as an exciting product and began promoting recipes with marshmallow whip, ambrosia being one of the first to receive this update in the 20’s. Once Jello, and/or other packaged gelatins, came on the scene in the 50’s, it was all over, and the gooey versions took hold as standard.
So, in a nutshell, that’s how I found the history of marshmallows in my grandmother’s purse.
P.S. Maybe she was onto something with all those Tums.
Note: My points of reference for the history of ambrosia can be found here:
The History of Ambrosia (Alabama Chanin)
How Ambrosia Became a Southern Christmas Tradition (Serious Eats)
*Photo credit: Father.Jack. I modified this image slightly by adjusting its color.