Southern Classic Champagne Salad Isn't What It Sounds Like

When you hear the word "salad," you probably think of something like a classic Cobb or Caesar. Lettuce forms the base, with other bits of produce rounding things out, along with a dressing of some kind to tie things together. But the truth is, a salad doesn't require lettuce — or even vegetables for that matter. The definition of salad is a very, very loose one, and there are countless variations that defy our conventional expectations. Few are less superficially "salad-like" than champagne salad, a specialty from the empire of comfort food that is the American South.

Champagne and salad may sound like an unlikely coupling (unless you're making dressing out of champagne vinegar), but believe it or not, this oddly-named dish involves neither traditional salad ingredients nor a trace of bubbly. Instead, it contains a sweet mixture of fruit, nuts, and a truly unexpected "dressing" that bears more resemblance to frosting than any salad dressing you've seen before. It's a crowd-pleasing dessert item perfect for summer parties, and it's probably the first time you'll encounter a salad recipe that calls for you to use the freezer!

Champagne salad is actually a dessert

Champagne salad is a fruity, frozen dessert that is a popular offering at spring and summer gatherings such as bridal and baby showers, Easter parties, and barbecue cookouts. It's best known as a Southern dish, and when you think about the hot, sweltering weather down there, you can see why. The elements of champagne salad involve three types of sliced fruit: Strawberries (usually frozen), pineapple (usually canned), and bananas (usually fresh). At this point, you might think we're headed towards a classic fruit salad, but this is where things get really interesting.

To make champagne salad, you begin by whipping together cream cheese and sugar. Yes, you read that correctly. To this mixture, you add your sliced fruits along with chopped nuts. The typical choice is either pecans or walnuts. The last ingredient is whipped topping, not to be confused with whipped cream. Whipped topping is primarily made from hydrogenated oil and sugar and you'll usually find it in the freezer section of the grocery store. The best-known brand is Cool Whip, which is also the variety you're likely to find in a lot of champagne salads. Once you've folded that into your fruit-nut-cream cheese-sugar mixture, you're ready for the final step, which is a few hours of resting in the freezer.

Why call it a salad?

The taste and texture of champagne salad are more adjacent to ice cream than anything you'd find listed amongst the salads on a restaurant menu (in fact, it's a great option when you're craving a frozen treat but don't own an ice cream maker), so why is it known as a salad? As it were, champagne salad is just one of many so-called "dessert salads," which are popular in parts of the United States, mainly in the South and the Midwest. Most of them include fruit, as well as a binder in the form of whipped topping or gelatin. Other popular dessert salads include ambrosia (which contains marshmallows, oranges, and Cool Whip), Coca-Cola salad (which includes Coke, Jell-O, and maraschino cherries), and frogeye salad (which includes acini di pepe pasta along with Cool Whip and canned fruit).

Why do we call champagne salad, or any of these other dessert variations, salad? Well, it comes down to the concept of dressing. This is the real defining factor of any salad to begin with, and although it may defy some people's expectations of the word, Cool Whip and Jell-O binders do perform a similar role to traditional types of salad dressing. This same logic applies to savory salads that use mayonnaise as a "dressing," such as potato salad, tuna salad, and chicken salad. We tend to throw the term salad around as the quintessential health food, but maybe we've been wrong all along.