Revealed: The History of Ambrosia Salad

One thing I’ve learned from holiday parties is to never discuss politics, religion…or ambrosia. You’ll never see a crowd divide so quickly.

“Coconut and bananas!” “No, pineapple and oranges!”

“It needs a thick, gooey base!” “Well, MY grandmother used straight sugar.”

“Ambrosia belongs in a mold.” (shock, horror, gasp) “Ramekins or nothing!”

It can be bewildering. Luckily, we’re unlocking the history of this beloved Christmas recipe, and maybe—just maybe!—we can find something we all agree on.

Get the recipe above: Citrus Ambrosia Salad

If you want to know ambrosia, you have to go back—way back. Back to the post-Civil War railroads that carried Southern-grown citrus to Northern markets. Back to the 19th-century ships that carried never-before-sold coconuts to America’s coasts. It was a heady time for new-flavor-hungry Americans, who named the combination of these exotic fruits “ambrosia,” after the food of the Greek gods. (Can’t imagine being THAT excited about new fruits? Maybe not—but oh, hey, your acai smoothie is dripping.)

christmas recipes

Get the recipe: Tropical Ambrosia Salad

At first ambrosia was a simple dish: just orange sections, grated coconut and sugar. But by the end of the 19th century, newer fruits arrived on the scene. Pineapple found its way into the ambrosia bowl, sometimes alongside banana slices and doused with cream.

By the early 20th century, fruity ambrosia had taken its place as a cherished Christmas staple—and that was especially true in the South, where Florida oranges were plentiful and ripe just in time for the holidays.

But ain’t nothing sure except change. Newly developed marshmallows became the it-candy of the 1930s, and an array of gooey ambrosia recipes sprang into existence. The ambrosia most of us know today—the pillowy, marshmallowy version—was born.

christmas recipes

Get the recipe: Heavenly Ambrosia in a Cloud

Nowadays, you’ll find rich, creamy ambrosias dominating the Christmas scene, although old-fashioned juicy variations still exist. Fruits and serving dishes vary widely based on preference (yes, gelatin molds and ambrosia had a mid-20th-century fling—and it’s still retro-charming!), which explains all the disagreements. If your mama didn’t make it that way, how can it be right?

But there’s one thing we CAN say with certainty: No matter how you make your holiday ambrosia, it’s a little bite of heaven.

Looking for more sticky-sweet, fruity concoctions? Check out our collection of Ambrosia Salad Recipes.

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