How do you remember your grandma?
I remember mine with a cigarette in one hand and a Schnapps on ice in the other, laughing a head-tilted-back full body laugh, gold caps flashing, ice cubes tinkling.
Or grabbing my small hand and yanking me down the dirt road for a long walk, one of her favorite things to do, whether or not it was mine.
But even more than those things I remember the heavy thud of her own mother’s cut crystal bowl as it landed on one of hundreds of potluck tables, forever filled with pink fluff studded with mysterious chewy bits and crunchy bits.
“Here’s the ambrosia,” she’d announce, as if to say: “Your party can begin now.”
If you’re from Minnesota, your grandma probably made one of these.
Green, pink, orange, fluffy, wobbly, bespeckled with shredded carrots or mini-marshmallows or canned fruits: in Minnesota, these dishes qualify as “salad.” Without a doubt, this has something to do with our six months of winter, so if salad must be poured forth from a Jell-O box, then so it shall be.
As a kid, I picked around the nuts in the otherwise satisfying, sugary pink cloud. Strangely, ambrosia salad is something of an adult dish, despite the inclusion of marshmallows and whipping cream. It doesn’t offer the gratifying purity of a slice of chocolate cake or a round, cool scoop of ice cream on a cone. There are immediately unidentifiable crunchy and chewy bits concealed within. There are surprises. Sometimes there are actual vegetables. It is salad, after all.
I’m going to go so far as to say ambrosia salad is sophisticated. Don’t believe me? Consider some of the definitions of the word: “Complex or intricate, deceptive, misleading, reflecting educated taste.”
I actually served this dish to Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Can you imagine? Lynne Rossetto Kasper of The Splendid Table. Lynn “she who knows everything there is to know about food” Rossetto Kasper. As she bit into a forkful she asked, “What is that little gelatinous bit in here?”
I stumped Ms. Kasper, my idol, with a mini marshmallow.
But here’s really why you should make your grandma’s ambrosia salad for your next potluck: Because your grandma is smarter than you.
Yeah, you might have a bigger collection of cookbooks, the ones from Spain and the ones from Morocco and the one that looks really great on your coffee table. But all of the things within are derivative of someone else’s culture, someone else’s tradition, someone else’s grandma.
So what if those grandmas had saffron threads and year-round arugula? Our grandmas had canned pineapple, Spanish peanuts, and ingenuity.
Before she died, my grandma bequeathed me her crystal bowl. She said, in her “I mean business” tone, “You can only have this if you’ll use it.”
I told her I couldn’t possibly. I was too afraid I’d break it.
She pulled it back from my hand. “Then you can’t have it.”
So I promised her I would use it. And I do.
My grandma’s ambrosia salad:
1 container of Cool Whip whipped topping (I cheated and used real whipping cream. The choice is yours. My grandma wouldn’t quibble about details.)
1 jar Maraschino cherries, quartered
1 can pineapple bits
1 cup Spanish peanuts, lightly crushed
As many mini marshmallows as you like
Sweeten the cream lightly with juice from the cherries until it is lightly sweet, pink, and delicious.
Pour into your own special bowl.