The big bowl of sweet, gooey white fluff and fruit known as ambrosia has become a Southern staple around Christmas time. Although maybe not as widely known or celebrated as it once was, it can still be found at family gatherings and buffets around the South, especially during the holidays. But where did the tradition come from and how did it become a part of Southern culture?
Is it a salad or a dessert? Ambrosia itself means delicious or fragrant. Ambrosia’s first historical appearance literally of mythical proportions, where it was popular on Mount Olympus as the gods ate it to maintain immortality.
The first written reference of the dish came from the South in a 1867 cookbook called Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years, written by Maria Massey Barringer of Concord, North Carolina. Her recipe was simple: “Grate the white part of the cocoanut [sic], sweeten with a little sugar, and place in a glass bowl, in alternate layers with pulped oranges, having a layer of cocoanut on top. Serve in ice-cream plates or saucers.”
Due in large part to the sudden availability of ambrosia’s “exotic” based ingredients, the dish became widely popular around the nation in the 1870s. What started as a simple dish evolved over the years and by the 1900s, the dish became more of a fruit salad, with recipes calling for things like sliced pineapple and cherries.
It was in the early 20th century that the combination became closely associated with Christmas in the South. It was a fancier dish that lended itself well to holidays, incorporating the necessities for a sweet dessert while also coinciding with orange season in Florida.
In 1934, the Evening Star of Washington, D.C. Lucy Eberly gave a recipe for ambrosia noting, “Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner would never seem quite complete without it.”
Over the years as more “exotic” fruits and sweeteners became available, they were incorporated. These included bananas and post-World War I “Marshmallow Whip” was featured as a highlighted ingredient in the modern ambrosia. In the 1950s, a modern twist included adding gelatin to the mix.
Do you have an ambrosia recipe that’s a family staple? Have you put your own modern twist on the classic staple?
For a traditional recipe to try this Christmas season, try cook Virginia Willis recipe from her cookbook Basic to Brilliant Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up For Company found here. For a modern twist, try chef Vivian Howard’s modern twist here.