January 8, 2021
Does your family have special recipes passed down from generation to generation? Mine does, and my mother’s old recipe file has turned out to be a record of her life as a wife and mother who cooked nearly every meal her family ate. That old recipe box that so many of us keep in the back cupboard is probably one of the major ways that our female ancestors told the story of their life, and it’s worth digging out to add to our family history.
As one of nine children growing up during the Great Depression, my mother’s family was poor. My grandmother was a wonderful cook and could make a small budget stretch by growing a large garden and raising a beef and a couple of pigs plus chickens for eggs and meat. Grandma made the food go even further by drying corn for the winter and canning strawberries, raspberries, peas, beans and even meat so that no one went hungry. She also baked huge batches of bread every other day. Although no one ever starved, store-bought treats were rare during those depression days.
Christmas was the one time of year that the family splurged on a fancier meal with a big turkey with Grandma’s renowned stuffing, bowls of creamy mashed potatoes and homemade rolls slathered with butter. My mother remembered it all fondly, but the thing she talked about most was what she called “Mama’s Salad” which was a concoction made of canned, crushed pineapple, banana slices, marshmallows, shredded coconut, walnut pieces and maraschino cherries all dressed in sweetened whipping cream. Grandma never followed any sort of recipe, but my mother swore it was the best dessert ever and replicated it every Thanksgiving and Christmas of her life.
When I grew up and started cooking myself, I realized that Grandma’s salad was a variation of ambrosia fruit salad that has been popular for decades. The recipe supposedly originated in the South and spread throughout the West and Midwest. There are many versions of ambrosia fruit salad, which got its name because ambrosia was the food of the gods, and this salad was good enough for a god. It was also sometimes called “Millionaire’s Salad” because most of the ingredients were relatively expensive and were only obtainable at the store – not homemade. An internet search found varieties of the salad featuring canned mandarin oranges with or without different types of nuts and dressed with sour cream, either sweetened with powdered sugar or not. Nothing I found is exactly like “our” salad, but it’s clearly in the style of all of them.
To make the salad even more ambrosial, my grandmother served it in green glass dishes that were only used for the special salad on Thanksgiving, Christmas and possibly a few other special meals during the year. According to family legend, the dishes had been a wedding gift to my grandparents, although no one seemed sure exactly who gave them to the young couple. All through my childhood, Mom would reminisce about those green dishes and lament that she hadn’t asked my grandmother for at least one of them as a keepsake. As I got older and discovered the joys of scrounging around in thrift shops and antique malls, I made it my mission to try to find at least one of those green dishes for Mom. Having very little to go on except that the bowls Mom remembered were small and green, I hopefully brought home several small green bowls over the years – only to have Mom reject them as “Not quite right.” Eventually, I did hit upon the “right” bowl and researched exactly what it was. Mom’s green dishes were a type of glassware called Early American Pattern Glass, and the pattern Grandma had was made by U.S. Glass Company as a part of what they called the “State Series” in a pattern called “Delaware.” The dark green, gold trimmed glassware came in all sorts of shapes from glasses to plates. Based on what I see on the online websites like Ebay and Etsy, the little dishes accompanied by a larger “mother” bowl were called berry sets and were probably the most popular pieces.
Mom was thrilled to see her childhood bowl and kept it safely in her china closet; now that’s she gone, it lives in my closet too, although I sometimes put it out for display on my dining room table where the sun can shine through the dark green glass.
Grandma’s Fruit Salad
(As I wrote above, there really isn’t a recipe with specific amounts for this salad. It’s pretty much based on how much you want to make and what ingredients you like best. I suspect that Grandma based her proportions on what she could afford to buy – most of the ingredients were luxury items during the depression so she probably varied her recipe based on cost.)
1 small can of crushed pineapple, drained
Marshmallows (modern recipes for similar salads call for miniature marshmallows, which are easy to use, but Mom always used full-sized marshmallows which she cut in pieces – she said the cut sides absorbed the pineapple flavor better)
Sweetened shredded coconut
Whipping cream, sugar and vanilla
To make the salad, drain the pineapple and mix it with the marshmallows. Let them sit for an hour or so to let the marshmallows absorb some of the flavor of the pineapple. At serving time add the sliced banana, coconut, walnut pieces and maraschino cherries. Whip the cream, adding sugar and vanilla to taste. Fold the salad into the cream. Chill for an hour or more. Serve in green glass dishes or other fancy bowls, if possible.
I have to admit that my own family doesn’t especially care for my grandmother’s fruit salad and prefers a sour cream and Mandarin orange variety handed down from another branch of the family called “Aunt Mae’s Salad.” Maybe one of these days I’ll have collected enough of the dark green dishes to serve it in, but in the meantime, we’re being adventuresome and using an old set of Depression pale green glass bowls. Maybe someday one of my sons will be serving his own versions of fruit salad in whatever glass dishes remind him of his youth.
Researcher/Director at Large