It’s the time of year when writers succumb to an inclination to categorize and rank. Everywhere I look, there are simplified ratings of complex people, new stories, and events; omnibus remembrances of the newly dead, and articles proclaiming the best of/worst of everything. Top ten lists abound.
I, myself, can’t resist categorizing and ranking, and not only at year’s end. Throughout the year, my family sometimes plays a game that I like to call “Best & Worst.” At the end of a party, vacation, dinner, etc., one of us will ask another: “what was the best part of ____ and why?” And then, of course: “what was the worst part of ___ and why?” Round and round we go, discussing the highs and lows of the event, comparing judgments, agreeing and disagreeing until we’ve discussed things as well as we possibly can.
If we play our game for the year that was 2009, I think we’ll have to get the “worst thing” out of the way first. There were all kinds of “worst” things about the past year: the crippled economy, petty politicians, childish celebrities, a lot of embarrassingly pointless news stories (balloon boy, anyone?), and the painful, seemingly endless, healthcare reform debate, to name only a few. In fact, it might be difficult to pinpoint one particular day that was itself so terrible; let’s just say that the whole year was saturated by and enveloped in a bad, smelly fog of discontent.
In spite of this, however, I can easily isolate one best day of 2009, one that was radiant in spite of all that fog. It was, without a doubt, the 20th of January.
To celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama, I canceled all of my classes and spent the day with Mimi and Jim, watching every second of the festivities on our computer screen (we don’t have a functioning television). I even decorated the outside of our house with American flags, something entirely out of character for me. For dinner — prepared just before coverage of the inaugural balls started — I served a meal inspired by the inaugural lunch, with a few additional nods to ingredients from geographically significant places in Obama’s life. The star of the meal was ambrosia, made with fresh pineapple (from the great state of Hawaii), bananas, and coconut.
Although ambrosia is essentially just a tropical fruit salad, its name suggests that it should be so much more than that. According to wikkipedia, in Greek mythology, ambrosia is:
sometimes the food, sometimes the drink, of the gods, often depicted as conferring ageless immortality upon whoever consumes it. It was brought to the gods in Olympus by doves (Odyssey xii.62), so may have been thought of in the Homeric tradition as a kind of divine exhalation of the Earth.
I’m not suggesting anything actually divine about the inauguration of Barack Obama, but it did seem to me that on January 20, 2009, a lot of people who live on a small section of the Earth’s northern hemisphere were finally able to exhale — or sigh — in a way that felt divine, or very nearly so. Ambrosia was a fitting accompaniment to our inaugural meal.
In the quite a few parts of the US, notably the South and Midwest, ambrosia is a much more prosaic dish than its classical name implies. Sometimes called “five cup salad,” a name that is surely the antithesis of the word “ambrosia,” this modern version almost always includes one full cup of–shivers!–miniature marshmallows as well as other ignoble ingredients like mayonnaise, maraschino cherries, and canned mandarin orange and pineapple. It would be difficult to convince a dove to carry such food anywhere.
A more divine version of ambrosia includes fresh fruit and substitutes bananas for the marshmallows. And while our inaugural ambrosia salad did not, as far as as I can tell, confer ageless immortality upon anyone, it did make us all very happy.
1 cup of fresh pineapple (chopped over a bowl to catch the juice)
1 cup of fresh naval orange supremes*, (make the supremes over a bowl to catch the juice)
1 cup of banana, chopped
**1 cup of fresh cherries, pitted and chopped
1 cup of toasted coconut
1/2 cup of toasted pecans (optional)
Combine the first four ingredients in a large crystal bowl. Sprinkle the coconut and pecans over the top. Serve immediately. This probably makes enough for four as a side dish. It also makes a great dessert — just add a bit of freshly whipped, lightly sweetened cream, maybe spiked with Grand Marnier.
* To supreme a citrus fruit: With a serrated knife, cut the peel and pith from the top and bottom of the fruit so that it stands level on a cutting board. Beginning at the top of the fruit, carefully cut the peel and pitch away with long, even strokes. Next, pick up the fruit and hold it over a bowl to catch the juices. With your knife, locate the membranes that section off the fruits segments. Carefully slice the fruit in between the membranes to loosen. You wind up with lovely, peel, pith, membrane-free slices of orange, grapefruit, etc. It’s not hard to do and is absolutely worth the time and effort.
**I’m not really sure what to do about the cherries. First, cherries aren’t in season in January. Second, I confess, I sort of like maraschino cherries. Still, that red dye is spooky, isn’t it? I’ll look for a jar of morello cherries for the future. You should do whatever seems right to you here.
And one more thing: although this post implies otherwise, I actually like “Five Cup Salad,” miniature marshmallows and all. In fact, if I’d had the presence of mind to do so, I would have taken a photograph of the ambrosia salad that we had yesterday for Christmas dinner at my in-law’s. Still, I’m fairly sure that anything that contains miniature marshmallows cannot properly be considered classical “ambrosia,” and I definitely wanted something divine on January 20, 2009.