When you hear the word ambrosia, you might think one of two things. You might think of the food the Greek gods were said to eat to preserve their immortality, but if you grew up in the southern United States you will probably think of the creamy, fruity, and sometimes unintelligible concoction one grew up seeing on buffet tables, church cookouts, and Christmas dinners spent with grandparents. Today's ambrosia fruit salad can include a wide variety of ingredients in a vast range of combinations but 150 years ago, it was a simple layering of less than a handful of ingredients. How did a basic if expensive dish made up of only three foods evolve into the heavily sweet and creamy mash of fruits, nuts, and gelatin one encounters today at any Southern pig-picking?
Food of Gods
The earliest reference to ambrosia as a food can be found in texts from ancient Greece where it is described as a food eaten by the gods.(1) The word ambrosia comes from the Greek word for fragrant or delicious. In some Greek myths, ambrosia was said to be the food the gods ate to keep themselves immortal. In other versions, ambrosia was a kind of perfume or soap in which the deities bathed themselves. A food reserved only for divinity, a human who tried to taste it would be put to death by the immortals for daring to eat the holy food. While actual descriptions of what ambrosia actually was, some theories and translations have emerged. Some believe it to be a fruit.(2) Others think it was a honey-based food like mead or a kind of porridge made with honey, fruits, and barley. Still, other interpretations believe it to be a kind of herb or plant.(4)
The mythological ambrosia may have been an inspiration for the dish of the same name that came about in American during the 1800s. The exact origins of the dish is a bit murky but the first written recipe called ambrosia is found in an 1867 cookbook Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years by Maria Massey Barringer from Concord, North Carolina. The recipe calls for the meat of a coconut to be grated and then sweetened with sugar. Oranges are then peeled, segmented, and the pulp removed. In a bowl, the oranges and coconut are layered until gone and a final layer of coconut is added to the top. Barringer recommends serving in a glass bowl, likely to show off the layers that make up the dish.(1) Other recipes dating to this time period early in ambrosia's history mostly stick to this rather strict and plain order of ingredients, though some substitute powdered sugar for crystallized white sugar. Ambrosia has a bit in common with another dessert popular around this time called iced oranges, which were orange segments covered in white sugar or soaked in a simple syrup of sugar boiled with water.(3)
While such a simple dish may seem rather underwhelming today, at the time this would have been a lavish thing to serve. All three ingredients, oranges, coconuts, and sugar, were expensive and hard to find ingredients in American until recently in U.S. history. When ambrosia recipes first began to appear, coconuts and oranges were exotic and costly foods that could only be gotten at certain times of the year and had a short shelf-life. Oranges could only be found locally in Florida and coconut had to find its way slowly from ports in California where it was shipped from Hawaii, Tahiti, and South America. To the 19th century diner, a dish of such outlandish and expensive ingredients would have been luxurious and enough to make even such a simple configuration only special enough to be served at certain occasions. It wasn't until after the American Civil War that they began to become easier and more economical to buy.(5)
After the war ended, orange groves grown mostly in the state of Florida started to experience a production boom and the fruit that had once been very rare began to be more widely found. When new railroad lines were installed across the country, transportation took the now abundant oranges all over the nation. Trains didn't just help oranges travel throughout America; they helped the coconut as well. Shipped to western U.S. ports from South America and the Pacific, coconuts were transported via the railway system to markets across the country.(5) Many cooks didn't even have to worry about breaking them open themselves. Factories located near ports could remove, grate, and can coconut meat for easy and long-lasting use in the kitchen even on the opposite side of the country.(1) Thanks to this cross-country shipping system, exotic foods like oranges and coconuts could be bought by people all over America, at least those people who could afford them.(5)
As the basic ingredients became both easier to find and cheaper to buy, recipes for ambrosia started to pop up in cookbooks and publications across America. While it is known today as a Southern Christmas specialty, these early recipes didn't limit making the dish to just one season of the year and ambrosia could be found enjoyed by people from north to south and east to west.(5) Whether it came from the southern U.S. or not, ambrosia burst in popularity as soon as its recipes were published in cookbooks and newspaper columns. It helped that the exotic foods it called for were becoming easier to find, though the dish itself kept its standing as a rather lavish addition to the meal for some time.(1)
An Abundance of Ingredients
It wasn't just advances in transportation that changed the enjoyment of ambrosia. As time passed, new technologies produced more foods in ever more convenient forms. Newly created refrigeration technology allowed for better preservation and wider use of foods with a very short shelf-life including dairy products and added the option of giving the dish a cool place to allow the ingredients to set so the flavors could mingle together. With refrigerators in the home, creamy additions to ambrosia, like whipped cream, sour cream, cream cheese, and even mayonnaise, were included. Other once-expensive foods also started to become both cheaper and more readily available and they too were added to the dish. Pineapple, which still remains a very popular addition today, made its way in as an exotic addition. Other recipes added liquors like sherry for extra flavor. The invention of new industrial production methods in the early 1900s introduced other foods to mass production, like marshmallows.; they too found their way into ambrosia and would eventually come to replace the shredded coconut and sugar in many recipes. Prepackaged foods and ready-to-use ingredients like flavored gelatin gain popularity with the invention of “convenience foods” and were also added to what was now a wildly different version of the simple but lavish orange and sugary coconut concoction.(5) By the turn of the 20th Century, the orange-coconut-sugar luxury was outpaced by a fruit salad mixture that could have any number of fruits, creams, and even liquors swimming within it.(1) In the early 1900s, recipes for ambrosia were at their peak in popularity and while it appeared in cookbooks throughout the century into the modern era in countless varieties, it faced a sharp decline after the first couple of decades in the 20th Century.(5)
Today, recipes for ambrosia salad can vary highly and every family and family member has their own way of whipping it up. Most share a common theme of fruity ingredients in a creamy substance but what those flavors are can be up to the maker. Any number of fruits can be added: oranges still remain popular but now share space with pineapple, cherries, bananas, strawberries, lemons, grapefruit, grapes, figs, dates, and/or raisins just to name a few.(1,2,3) Many recipes call for a non-fruity element, usually marshmallows, which never lost their popularity, but also pecans, walnuts, almonds, and even alcohol like rum.(3) Flavored gelatin began to make an appearance after the 1950s and it too can be found still in many modern recipes.(1) While marshmallows more or less replaced shredded coconut in most cases, many cookbooks, especially in the south, make sure to include coconut today as a crucial addition. For the creamy component, whipped cream or whipped topping is very popular still, but other dairy products can be sour cream, yogurt, cream cheese, cottage cheese, pudding, and yes, even mayonnaise.(3) The addition of dairy to the dish necessitates the dish be refrigerated until serving but it doesn't keep well; all the sugary additions can make the fruits rather quickly break down until the whole dessert looks like a bowl of mush after a day.(2)
A Christmas Tradition(?)
Around the early 1900s, ambrosia started to gain notoriety as a must-have dish on the holiday table in the southern U.S. It's not sure how this came to be but there are some theories. The expensive ingredients originally included would have limited its serving to special occasions, like Christmas. However, there is no mention in these early recipes of ambrosia being an associated with any holiday at all. Oranges grown in Florida would have just come to markets around December prior to the age of globalization and international trading where today they can be found year-round. The serving of the dish at family gatherings and the timing of the orange growing season may have just been a coincidence that evolved over time to become a holiday staple. Why it was considered a southern tradition is less well known. While the earliest recipe did come from North Carolina, recipes for Ambrosia were published all over the United States and it became a popular dish both within and without the U.S. It could be that its southern roots caused the dessert to persevere throughout the ages even when it fell out of favor in the rest of the country.(1) However the association came to be, ambrosia remains a popular addition to many Southern buffets, family gatherings, barbecues, and holiday dinners.
Making the First Ambrosia
While many people who grew up eating or observing ambrosia salad (probably made by their grandmothers and aunts), the dessert they have in mind is probably similar to what I grew up with in North Carolina: a fluffy mix of fruits, whipped cream, gelatin, marshmallows, and shredded coconut. While that dessert is more or less a Southern staple, I wanted to try out the original recipe of layered oranges, coconut, and sugar. Since I was alone while making this and had no one to share it with, I made enough for one, but feel free to double the recipe (or more) to serve enough for a family gathering.
Eat Your History! Makes 19th Century Ambrosia
(Based on the recipe from Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years (1867) by Maria Massey Barringer)
Makes two servings.
Assemble the team1. Gather your ingredients and hardware:
-1 large orange
-1 cup of shredded, unsweetened coconut
-3 teaspoons of white sugar
Orange you glad?2. Peel the orange and separate the segments. Remove the outer casings of the individual segments.
A little something sweet3. In a bowl, place a layer of oranges until the bottom of the bowl is covered. Top with a layer of half of the coconut and half the sugar. Repeat with remaining oranges, coconut, and sugar.
Let it mellow4. Let sit in cool place for 30 minutes to an hour. It's not needed but I found it helped the coconut absorb some of the orange juices and the sugar to seep into th fruits.
Food score: 4/5. Surprisingly yummy. Nice, quick dessert with few ingredients. Will probably turn to it again as an easy snack.
(1)Serious Eats. "How Ambrosia Became a Southern Christmas Tradition." Accessed November 23, 2018.
(2)Alabama Chanin Journal. "The History of Ambrosia." Accessed November 23, 2018.
(3)The Nibble. "RECPE: Ambrosia Salad For Fall & Winter." Accessed November 29, 2018.
(4)Food Timeline. "Ambrosia." Accessed November 30, 2018.
(5)Porter Briggs. "Ambrosia: Southern Food of the Gods." Accessed November 30, 2018.