One Thanksgiving as we were unpacking her car, my sister Cindy passed me a sack of oranges, a pineapple, and two coconuts. She wanted to make ambrosia.
Ambrosia is traditionally made with tropical fruits from Mexico and Central America that came to local stores in the South during the winter: oranges, pineapples, bananas, and coconuts. Maraschino cherries have always been an option, and later we had Louisiana strawberries. We sweetened with pure cane sugar.
Later, some people came to add whipped cream, Cool Whip, or (God help us) mayonnaise and marshmallows, but our family never has. Say it’s simply fruit salad if you like, but to me, it’s ambrosia.
Because ambrosia is so time-consuming, most people nowadays use processed ingredients like canned mandarin oranges, Dole pineapple chunks, and zip-lock grated coconut. But my sister Cindy was an old-school kitchen Nazi; it we were going to do it, we were going to do it right.
First, the coconuts; I twisted a clean screwdriver into the eyes, a Phillips head, which come to think of it is probably the best tool for the job. (I wouldn’t be surprised if some outfit actually sold a customized screwdriver with a teak handle for fifty bucks as a “coconut pick.”) I drained the milk and drank it with tot of rum.
Cindy had a claw hammer ready for the next step in this brutal affair, which was breaking the nuts into pieces. On the back steps in a cold wind. Then I had to bring it in and use a flat-head screwdriver to pry the meat from the hull. Then the meat had to be skinned and grated.
This took about an hour. I had a bong hit.
Fortunately, the pineapple was soft and ripe. I twisted the top off, trimmed it a bit, set it off in a glass of water, then assaulted the fruit, quartering it, cutting out the core, peeling off the skin and nicking out the eyes. Then I diced it, sprinkled a little sugar on it, and set it in the refrigerator.
Sis said she could not find Valencias, which are sweeter, but she had navel oranges, which despite their shortcomings in the sugar department are infinitely easier to section. Frankly, I’d rather have my teeth filed with a rock than section citrus, but somebody had to do it, and it damn sure was not going to be my (older) sister. I had another bong hit, and in a half hour I had about a quart of orange segments to macerate in the refrigerator.
When time came, the oranges were drained and pressed into the bottom of a glass bowl along with a few sliced strawberries and pineapple. This layer was topped with a generous sprinkling of hand-grated coconut and sugar. More drained fruit was added, along with a few sliced bananas, topped with coconut. Some of the juices from the maceration processes were combined and drizzled over all, but most was reserved for a rum punch.
Cindy’s ambrosia was a dish for (and from) the ages. How I wish she were still here to bully me into making it.