I think I know why it took me so long to come around to the notion that a salad simply must include lettuce. One word: Ambrosia.
The history of ambrosia is fantastic. No, really. Apparently, the gods of classic mythology ate ambrosia. Before you start asking how they had time to fashion all those tiny marshmallows, you should also know that the Oxford Companion to Food from 1999 said that any particularly delicious food could be called "ambrosia". I can only imagine that created quite the confusion around the mythological buffet.
Ambrosia became popular, particularly in the South, at the end of the 19th century, but sometimes masqueraded under the name "iced oranges". How do you determine what is and what isn't a true ambrosia? It's all in the dried coconut, dear friends. Apparently there is at least one rule of ambrosia, and that is it.
Looking for a connection to your 1870s ancestors? Take a big helping of ambrosia.
"Six sweet oranges, peeled and sliced (seeds and as much of the core as possible taken out), one pine-apple peeled and sliced (the canned is equally good), and one large cocoa-nut grated; alternate the layers of orange and pine-apple with grated cocoa-nut, and sprinkle pulverized sugar over each layer. Or, use six oranges, six lemons and two cocoa-nuts, or only oranges and cocoa-nuts, prepared as above."---Buckeye Cookery, 1877
But ambrosia is more than mythology and history, it's personal. When I was little, my mom was big on routine, or at least that's how it felt to me. Every Sunday after church we'd have pork tenderloin, mashed potatoes, peas, and "salad." I lived for Sunday salad. Extra helping of salad? Yes, please!
My mom's version of ambrosia was definitely a "stir until it looks right" kind of recipe. Generally speaking, you'd drain a can of crushed pineapple and a can of mandarin oranges and mix them together with whipped topping from a tub and a handful or two of mini marshmallows. Add a shower of flaked coconut, to taste. Mix, chill, and serve.
As you might imagine, ambrosia leaves room for fun food play. Meet its sour cream sister:
This bad-boy of a first course swaps the tub of fluffy whipped topping goodness for softened cream cheese, then adds jarred maraschino cheeries, which are pretty much my favorite food group after Doritos and cheese straws.
If a salad with the word "sweet" in it is too much for a starter for your taste, then shift it to a dessert. This gorgeous layer cake calls for ambrosia as a filling, asking the obvious question, "Is this cake now an appetizer?"