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Comfort Food : Ambrosia: Innocent Pleasures : Side dishes: The frothy fruit concoction has a long and highly caloric history.

January 24, 1991|LANCE LOUD | Loud is a journalist living in Hollywood. and

Ambrosia: Ancient food of the gods--or ungodly food of the ancients? In the 6th Century BC, when the Greek poet Ibycus coined the name, it can be assumed that he had something flashier in mind than the creamy concoction enjoyed for the last century or so in the U.S.A.

Back in Olympian times, ambrosia gave whoever ate it immortality. Today, a big scoop of the deceptively fluffy stuff just moves people further along toward artery-blocking inertia.

Ambrosia has never been a brilliant eating experience. Made basically of heavily caloric sweet things--fruit, whipped cream, marshmallows and coconut--gooshed up in a big bowl, ambrosia is an anyone-can-do-it recipe that the adventurous may choose to customize with their own favorite fruits, and the casual cook can throw together with nothing more complicated than canned fruit cocktail, a container of Dream Whip and a bag of mini-marshmallows. It has no special textures to self-consciously acknowledge, and it needs no acquired taste to appreciate.

Bland? Innocuous? Certainly--and proud of it! For this en- Lite ned era, ambrosia may be a many-carbohydrated treat out of time, but it has a homey durability. Beyond trends, it is a great American security food.

When I was a young man going through my obligatory starving-in-New-York period, quarter-pound quantities of ambrosia were among the few comforts I could afford to indulge in. Inside my standard-issue Manhattan tenement, I would dump the deli-bought ambrosia into a salad bowl. This mountain of whipped cream, dappled with mandarin orange sections, flecks of coconut and the chewy sweet nothingness of mini-marshmallows (the Shmoo of the confection chain), didn't quite make up for my lack of money or master plan, but it did manage to provide fleeting moments of solace. By the light of the TV, I would devour it, leaving the remains for the roaches. Noblesse oblige on the New York poverty line.

So ubiquitous is ambrosia in the archives of American cuisine, neither time nor inventor is credited with its origination. It is known that ambrosia first became popular in the Old South. Coming at the end of a Southern-fried Christmas banquet, the mixture of grated coconut and orange peel and lemon juice with a sprinkling of powdered sugar was a light touch to offset the gorge-a-thon that had presumably come before. And years ago, it was a relatively innocent reflection of the pleasures that appealed to America.

But as pop culture has gone for the gaudy, so has ambrosia followed. Ambrosia's simplistic origins reveal a simpler time. Today, lathered in whipped cream, studded with marshmallows, accessorized in fancy fruits and sometimes even dolled up with a dollop of mayonnaise, this glutinous fruit salad reflects more of the contemporary charm of an over-the-hill Vegas showgirl. Yes, we've come a long way, baby.

Though its caloric oomph may be roughly equivalent to the G-force of a Mack truck, ambrosia is a delicate commodity on several fronts. Taste-wise, this means no bananas--they overpower the flavor and enhance a feverishly glutinous look too reminiscent of "The Blob" to be charming. Visually, the more sedate the ambrosia, the better. With a dish that so closely treads the line between melange and mess, modesty is the best policy in the looks department.

This means dump the garnish: Too much distinction adds up to visual hodgepodge. I still recall an ambrosia I once saw in a New York deli, a 5 o'clock shadow of toasted coconut giving it too much personality. As for maraschino cherries, though they do have a certain '50s cachet, added to the ambrosia they leave their calling card in the form of red dye No. 3 skid marks in the whipped cream.

Then there's the mayo problem. As inscrutable as lettuce on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches or sardines in anything, mayonnaise is one bit of nostalgia ambrosia doesn't need. Though once America's favorite additive, mayo's high egg and oil count has given it a reputation as a sort of Condiment of the Living Dead. In today's more health-conscious society, the number of mayo-spiked ambrosias has been cut down. But according to purists, mayonnaise is kosher if not required for a truly American Gothic ambrosia.

One rule to follow: If the ambrosia is intended as a side dish, count on mayo to "slaw" it to the nth degree--it then becomes more of a fruit slaw salad. If ambrosia is bound for the dessert table, stick to whipped cream. Of course, as in any folk food, interpretations abound. Some recipes call for sour cream instead of whipped (which is mixed with the fruit and allowed to stand overnight); some prefer a simple sugar sauce instead of any cream at all. Other ambrosia specialists insist on both whipped cream and mayonnaise.

But the chief rule of the ambrosia game might be this: It must be consumed quickly. Ambrosia is a dish that can be allowed to stand overnight-- but not longer .

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