How Did Ambrosia Salad Get Its Name?

Whether you're a fan or not, it's pretty safe to say that you're probably familiar with ambrosia salad (or at least a variation). After all, the assorted fruit salad, which can typically come with marshmallows, whipped cream, nuts, and maraschino cherries, has been served during the holidays and public gatherings for quite a long time. Still, even if most people know it, the origin of the salad's name is a lot harder to track down, especially since most understand what the term "ambrosia" means, but no one can quite figure out how it came to describe the dish.

For those unfamiliar with the word, ambrosia dates back to Greek and Roman mythology. According to legend, ambrosia symbolizes many things. On one side, it was the food and nectar of the gods of Olympus. But the name is also associated with something that grants everlasting life. And in a way, the dish itself has achieved that, especially as a Southern staple in the United States. Nevertheless, while the mythos behind the fruit salad's namesake doesn't explain the why, it does offer some context clues when placed alongside the dish's history and where it may have originated.

The possible origins of ambrosia salad

There a several different claims to the origins of ambrosia salad, which places the dish's home anywhere from North Carolina (which is also where the dessert's first documented recipe is from) to the New England states. Yet, one food historian believes it may have been elsewhere. University of South Carolina in Columbia professor David Shields thinks ambrosia salad might be from Missouri. "Ambrosia starts popping up in newspaper stories on local parties," Shields told the Associated Press. "In the latter 1870s, the earliest of those sorts of stories actually all come from Missouri for some reason."

There's no accurate way to explain why Missouri became the focal point for ambrosia salad. Still, a 1921 article in The Open Court provides a possible answer, and it's centered around religion. Peter J. Popoff connected his thoughts on ambrosia to Christianity: "Ambrosia means a thing giving immortality ... It corresponds exactly to the fruit of the tree of life spoken of in the Bible, for those eating it shall [live] forever." Granted, Popoff's argument was written long after the 1870s, but the Christian connections may have been something that those eating the dish in the late 19th century could have thought up on their own since faith was prevalent in the Show Me state around that time.

How religion may be tied to ambrosia salad

Although ambrosia salad is more commonly seen as one of the many desserts from the 1950s, two components, specifically the coconut and mandarin oranges, reveal a connection that can be traced back to the Gilded Age. When ambrosia salad began to gain traction in the late 1800s, the dish mainly comprised shredded coconut, oranges, and sugar. Marshmallow wasn't introduced into the dish until the beginning of the 20th century, which came about through an advertising drive suggesting its inclusion to promote whipped marshmallow fluff. Chef Virginia Willis confirmed this and that the items were regarded as expensive luxury items because they were hard to come by.

However, David Shields also pointed out to the Associated Press that the ingredients became more obtainable once industrial machinery and railroad transportation allowed for greater production and distribution. As a result, a large portion of the population — who typically wouldn't have had access or the means —were suddenly introduced to new and arguably exciting ingredients, which may have been seen as a blessing.

There's no way to confirm this as a way to explain the moniker, but it's a possibility. The National Women's History Museum claims that despite increasing food availability during the Gilded Age, most people lived in impoverished conditions, leading to issues like starvation, as 10% of the population lived extravagantly. So, maybe they saw it as a godly gift after all?