Anne Byrn's Mother’s Ambrosia, The DOS's Black-Eyed Pea Salad—Trading Places!
Changing things up! Between the Layers shares a traditional holiday recipe with us.
I invited bestselling cookbook author Anne Byrn, former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a graduate of La Varenne École de Cuisine in Paris, to tell us about her Mom’s ambrosia. Meanwhile, I shared my Black-Eyed Pea Salad over on her newsletter, Between the Layers. Happy New Year! And if you’d like to read more about Anne’s newsletter, click here:
The Sweet Story of Ambrosia (or Food for the Gods—and hopefully for us, too)
By Anne Byrn
ONE OF THE MOST HEAVENLY childhood memories I have is the dining room sideboard crammed with triple-layer orange cake, chocolate fudge cake, sugar cookies, crescent cookies, and in the center of this orbit of celestial delights, my grandmother's cut-glass punch bowl filled with ambrosia.
Ambrosia looks like a giant orange salad, but it’s never salad.
And it might be garnished with crushed pineapple, just enough to sweeten the oranges if they need it - because you never add sugar. And sometimes, for the same reason, it’s dusted with sweetened grated coconut. But never, ever bananas or maraschino cherries or other oddball ingredients.
Because ambrosia is about the oranges that come into season around Christmas.
Ambrosia was my mother's way of telling us her story
She was the youngest of five daughters and raised in Nashville in the 1920s, a child of the Depression who lost her father at 12.
She and her older sisters grew to be a closely knit group known to their friends as the ‘’Carr girls’’ — artistic, outspoken, skilled bridge players, good cooks, and with big hearts for each other.
The story my mother told each Christmas as we pulled oranges and tangerines from our stockings was that for as long as she remembered, citrus was prized and pricey.
But at Christmas, you pulled out all the stops and there were oranges. They filled your stockings, were grated and squeezed into cake, and were cut open to make ambrosia.
Oranges and their healing balm
Far from land-locked Nashville, in areas of the coastal South, oranges and citrus were always more accessible. Spanish explorers brought Seville orange trees with them to transplant in the warm, coastal soil where they eventually thrived and would travel via native Americans up our coastlines.
According to historian David Shields of the University of South Carolina, oranges have been a part of the coastal South Carolina diet since they were first grown there. The fruit was a "breakfast staple, beverage, a component of sweet-sour confectionary, an acidic substitute for vinegar, and a health tonic."
And because oranges ripen on the tree and have a short shelf life, the home-grown orange, allowed to ripen on the tree as long as possible before picking, always tasted best. Charleston gardens contained orange, lemon and lime trees, and those who could afford sugar turned the bitter Seville orange into marmalade, orangeade, and sweet orange wine, and all this was before commercial orange planting of other varieties began in Florida in the early 1800s.
The English navy had fought scurvy with fresh lime juice in the 1790s, but it wouldn't be until the early 20th Century that researchers fully understood the healing power of vitamin C.
One of my favorite stories is of author Caroline B. King, an American Army dietitian in World War I, who would rob the officer's quarters of fresh oranges, then, like Robin Hood, take them to the infirmary where she would slice them in half and squeeze the fresh orange juice right into the mouths of wounded soldiers.
Reconnecting with my sister through ambrosia
My older sister has never loved to cook. But there is one recipe she now makes each Christmas season, and it's our mom's ambrosia.
The first time she told me she wanted to attempt ambrosia was probably five or six years ago.
The deal was that she would buy some oranges, and I would get some oranges, and we would make it together in my kitchen.
We also brought our own remembrances of what ambrosia looked like…
For example, my sister recalled the ambrosia of our youth being soft and juicy, not in perfect sections, so she sliced the oranges in half and used a serrated grapefruit spoon to scoop out the pulp from each section.
And I recalled the pieces were larger, so I decided to peel the oranges like an apple, removing all the peel and bitter white pith underneath. With a sharp paring knife I cut into both sides of the membrane of each section to expel what the French call a "supreme," a naked orange section, still intact.
As it turned out, a little of each was most delicious.
Having some of the oranges spooned out and some sectioned made a texturally and visually interesting ambrosia. As did having different types of oranges.
Creating ambrosia, we discovered, was a bit like painting.
If you use only one type of orange in ambrosia, the result looks - and tastes - dull. But if you marry different oranges - navel, tangerines, tangelos, blood oranges, and the pinkish-orange Cara Cara - with their varying colors, flavors, and nuances, it creates a vibrant ambrosia that nearly jumps out of the bowl!
So, our new tradition is that my sister comes to my kitchen with her bag of oranges, and I have my bag of oranges and we cut and section and scoop and talk. Memories of past Christmases are shared. The pain of losing our parents seems to ease.
This year, though, COVID changed things. She had contracted the virus 10 days earlier. I dropped off oranges at her back door so she wouldn’t have to drive to the store. I also dropped off a quart of white bean soup and a bag of decorated sugar cookies, the least I could do as she was celebrating Christmas Eve on her own.
She made ambrosia at her house and brought it over to mine for Christmas brunch. And even though she couldn’t taste it due to Covid and didn’t have any crushed pineapple in house, we spooned it into punch cups, and declared it was the best ambrosia yet…
Cara Caras, Clementines, tangerines, navels, and something else - a little compromise and some love.
*RECIPE: Bebe’s Christmas Ambrosia
Here is our method of making ambrosia, named after our mother. We seldom use a recipe since making ambrosia has a lot to do with how many oranges you can get your hands on and how many people you will serve. We consider this a dessert, but it is very much a salad if you want it to be, served alongside baked ham or grilled spareribs. And don't worry about leftovers - if you even have them! - add a splash of vodka and you’ve got cocktails!
Makes 12 servings
Prep: 1 to 1½ hours
16 oranges (a mixture of navel, Cara Cara, Clementine, blood oranges, and tangerines, or whatever oranges you can get)
1 cup finely chopped fresh pineapple or canned unsweetened pineapple, if desired
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut, only if desired, for garnish
1. Divide the oranges in half. With one half, peel them, and with a sharp knife cut away all the white pith. Carefully remove the orange supremes by slicing down into the membranes that surround them, and discard any seeds. Place these supremes into a glass bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and chill.
2. With the other half of oranges, cut them in half. Using a serrated grapefruit spoon, scoop into the well of each section and turn this pulp into a separate glass bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and chill.
3. When ready to serve, turn both bowls of oranges into a larger glass bowl or punchbowl. Gently toss to combine. Cover with the pineapple, and then top with coconut, only if desired, or serve the coconut to the side.
4. Serve in punch cups with sugar cookies.
Thank you, Anne!
I’m grateful to Anne Byrn for sharing this story about (and recipe for) her mother’s beautiful and elegant version of one of my favorite desserts (which other people are always ruining with candied cherries and marshmallows and other treacly ingredients). Here’s how to keep up with Anne on Twitter and Instagram.
That’s it! We’re done here. If you feel like sharing the Department of Salad with friends or family who deserve it, please do so with the buttons below. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you this weekend, with more Roast Beef recipes. Just kidding! It will be. . . SALAD.