Parfaits, puddings, and sugarplums all have their place on the tables of holiday feasts, but no dessert is quite as Christmas-y below the Mason-Dixon as ambrosia. With a name like “Ambrosia,” which originally referred to the Greek food of the gods, it’s no wonder that this sugary, fruity treat is one we Southerners can’t seem to forget. The recipe has changed countless times over the years, with the addition of modern confections and inventions, and today there is no consensus on what, exactly, makes up ambrosia—except that it’s delicious.
At its heart, ambrosia is a fruit salad. The first recipes for the dessert appeared in the mid-nineteenth century and strictly adhered to three ingredients: oranges, coconut, and sugar. In 1867’s Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed my Table for Twelve Years, you’ll find the earliest recorded recipe for ambrosia. Maria Massey Barringer of Concord, North Carolina, shared her recipes in the cookbook, including a layered ambrosia, which began with orange slices topped with a layer of fresh shredded coconut, sweetened with a sprinkle of sugar, then orange slices again, and so forth. With both oranges and coconuts limited by season, cost, and perishability, a recipe with such decadent and expensive ingredients was, naturally, saved for such special occasions as Christmas.
Though there’s a chance Miss Barringer’s recipe gives credence to the idea of ambrosia as a purely Southern invention, recipes for ambrosia continued to show up in publications across the country through the nineteenth century. Not only was ambrosia becoming a nationally-recognized recipe, it also began to defy seasonal stereotypes. After the Civil War, orange groves grew substantially, as did their production, providing an abundance of the once-rare fruit to the nation. The country’s expanding railroad system also meant the citrusy fruit was available throughout the country, as opposed to the localized region of the South. Those railroads also made exotic coconuts—imported from Hawaii, Tahiti, and South America and delivered to western ports—available anywhere with a railroad depot. Ambrosia quickly became a cross-national and cross-seasonal favorite.
With the signature and once-hard-to-get ingredients of oranges and coconut suddenly readily available, cooks around the country started getting more creative with their ambrosia recipes. Other lavish ingredients found their way into the dessert, like pineapple, sherry, and whipped cream. Modern amenities and products allowed for creative takes on the salad. Refrigeration, for example, meant newer recipes could call for highly-perishable ingredients (like that whipped cream) and extended time for setting. The invention of convenience foods made the recipe even more varied. Modern marshmallow, the production of which was mechanized and popularized at the turn of the twentieth century, found their way into the favorite fruity salad, the fluffy stuff usually replacing classic coconut. Other modern, convenient ingredients that cooks incorporated? Whipped topping, flavored gelatin, and even mass-produced mayonnaise.
Recipes for ambrosia peaked in the early twentieth century, reaching their height of variety of ingredients, as well as their scope of production. Ambrosia was on tables across the nation and around the clock, until it faded into history, another forgotten relic of a recipe. Today, most Americans would raise a questioning brow at the suggestion of ambrosia—but not in the South. The recipe that began here has returned to its roots: ambrosia is once again a Southern Christmas staple. Something about our Southern dedication to tradition brought us back to the recipe, even as the rest of the country strayed away.
Although even the most ardent fans of the salad can’t agree on the exact recipe, they can agree on its necessity on the Southern table. Some folks still stick to the traditional recipe that calls for a simple concoction of orange segments, shredded coconut and sugar. But others will add just about anything: pineapple, mini marshmallows, maraschino cherries, bananas, strawberries, pecans, peeled grapes, whipped cream, sour cream, cream cheese, pudding, yogurt, even cottage cheese. Modern takes on the recipe keep showing up on our tables and in our recipe books.
Whether you’re a classicist or like to get creative in the kitchen, you’ll love ambrosia. And if you’re in the South this season, there’s a good chance you’ll get to sample this food of the gods. Just look for the fruity, fluffy concoction at the end of the table—the one that people keep revisiting for seconds.