One Thanksgiving as we were unpacking her car, my sister Cindy passed me a sack of oranges, a pineapple and two coconuts. I shuddered, knowing she wanted to make ambrosia. Ambrosia, literally translated, means “immortal,” which is appropriate because it takes forever to make. It’s a fruit salad traditionally made with orange, pineapple and coconut. Some sort of sweetener is also involved, either syrup macerated from the fruits themselves or, more formally, grenadine or maraschino. 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 Cindy was an old-school kitchen Nazi; it was going to be done 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.”) Then I drained the milk and drank it with a jigger of rum. Cindy already had a claw hammer out for the next step in this brutal affair, so I broke the nuts into pieces with it on the back porch. Once the meat was extracted, it had to be skinned and grated. This took about an hour. Fortunately, the pineapple was soft and ripe. I twisted the top off, trimmed it a bit, set it off in a glass of water and assaulted the fruit, quartering it, cutting out the core, peeling off the skin and nicking out the eyes. I diced the flesh coarsely, sprinkled a little sugar on it, and set it in the refrigerator. Sis said she could not find Valencias, which are sweeter, so 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 in a half hour I had about a quart of orange sections to macerate.
Cindy, always the traditionalist, opted for a layered presentation. The oranges were drained and pressed into the bottom of a cut-glass bowl along with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Then a generous sprinkling of hand-grated coconut, the pineapple, also drained and topped with the rest of the coconut. The juices from the maceration processes were saved, mixed together and some was poured over the salad before serving (not much, just enough to moisten) and the rest was reserved for 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.