Except for fuzzy black-and-white memories, the first place I remember celebrating Christmas is my grandmother's house. Hers wasn't the sort of grandmother house with attics and shutters and clapboard siding--nothing you'd see in a Hollywood movie or a Hallmark greeting card. The sprawling, modern four-bedroom tract home on a quiet street in La Habra was emblematic of the Southern California good life, a house that proved my grandmother and grandfather had finally made it into the middle class.
Sometimes, I think it would have been more fun to grow up celebrating Christmas at the house my grandparents left behind. On the outskirts of Whittier, it was an old red house with a long, dirt-road driveway and chickens around the back.
Earlier, my grandparents had been among the first Mexicans from East L.A. to settle the growing town of Pico Rivera, where tiny plots of land were marked off like a checkerboard and all you had to do was pick the one you wanted to fill in.
In La Habra, my grandmother served Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at a highly polished, dark-wood table, part of an Early American-style dining room set probably purchased at Sears. (Not only was Sears the American place to shop, my grandmother worked there for years--once she finally got permission from my grandfather.)
The kids got TV trays, our own individual tables. Very cool, we thought.
Our dinners were an odd blend of where we'd come from and where we thought we wanted to go. There were Christmas tamales and sometimes \o7 nopales \f7 (pieces of tender cactus stewed with pork and red chile). And one year, my grandmother made the world's best turkey with lemon and garlic, Cuban-style. But mostly, there were things like ham dotted with maraschino cherries and slices of pineapple, plain American turkey, mashed potatoes and hot, white dinner rolls.
My mother brought the ambrosia. This has to be one of the world's strangest foods. It's amazing that this super-sweet and only slightly sour fruit concoction is classified as a salad. Like Waldorf salad, it's one of the few survivors of the weird salad days that hit this country around the turn of the century. And, of course, to kids, a sweet salad may be the only acceptable salad.
Because there was no ambrosia tradition in our family, I think my mother must have gotten her recipe from the back of a jar, probably a jar of Miracle Whip. After all, the "secret" to her ambrosia is the chemical reaction that occurs when you blend Miracle Whip and Cool Whip. Along with the Whips, she adds lots of tiny marshmallows to the mixture of canned and fresh fruit, which gives the whole dish an airy, cloud-like texture. On top, she decorates the salad with walnuts, mint sprigs and that holiday kitchen staple, maraschino cherries.
What could be more American?
\o7 This is not a recipe you should try if it's sophisticated dining you want. Ambrosia, in all its forms, but especially this one, is holiday junk food. It's the sort of thing many people don't admit to liking, but somehow it always gets eaten. My Aunt Debbie has been known to go through a whole bowlful on the drive down to San Diego. A few tasters in The Times Test Kitchen reacted with indifference when first presented with the stuff, then went on to consume several servings when they thought nobody was looking.
2 (1 pound, 14-ounce) cans fruit cocktail, drained
1 (8 1/4-ounce) can mandarin orange segments, drained or segments from 3 tangerines
1 1/2 to 2 cups mayonnaise-like salad dressing
2 to 3 cups artificial whipped cream topping
2 cups mini-marshmallows
2 medium apples, diced
2 bananas, sliced
1 cup drained Maraschino cherries
Walnut halves or sliced almonds
Day before serving, combine fruit cocktail, orange segments and salad dressing to coat in large bowl. Let marinate in refrigerator overnight.
In morning, add whipped cream, marshmallows, apples and bananas and mix together. Garnish with cherries, mint and nuts. Chill in refrigerator several hours. Makes 10 servings.
Each serving contains about:
387 calories; 355 mg sodium; 12 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 59 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.