Thursday, December 29, 2011
The Preacher’s Corner
Ambrosia was hard work
Christmas brought lots of good food as always, but this year I did not have a single helping of ambrosia! Ambrosia is one of my favorite holiday treats — best when served with a slice of white cake and coconut icing!
Of course my grandmothers had the best recipes. Note that I am referring to both of my grandmothers, for neither their coconut cakes, nor their ambrosia were made by exactly the same recipe. Grandmother Winter’s was a yellow cake with white frosting. What made hers special was three layers. Mother’s mother made her cake with just two layers, but it had its special qualities as well.
Now you are going to ask me for recipes, but my grandmothers did not cook by recipe, so I am left only with memories. You also have to remember that the accidents of time make my grandmothers the age of great-grandmothers for most contemporaries in my generation, so if I seem to be describing an older era, I am. My grandmothers looked like the women in the Norman Rockwell paintings, and I am quite aware that most grandmothers today do not look this way!
If it is true that your memories include all the stories told you by persons who witnessed the events, then my memories include things that go back all the way into the 1800s. That is three centuries now, but I do not feel old because of it.
Mother’s mother, who lived to be 97, marveled that she could remember seeing her first airplane, the first radio, the first television, the first rocket into space — as well as the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as the Great Depression. As you can imagine, that resulted in lots of stories for me, but I think it was the Great Depression that shaped our family the most — perhaps because of the natural inclination to thrift that seemed to possess all my older relatives.
But back to the Ambrosia.
My Cleveland, Mississippi, grandmother (mother’s mother), made her home with us, and she used fresh coconuts for her recipes. This was before frozen coconut was available, and she thought the coconut that came in a can was somehow unsuitable.
So, a few days before the cooking began, two or three whole coconuts would come home from the store, and to me, as a little boy, these made wonderful toys! I was allowed to play with them, just so long as I did not actually crack or damage them. You can be pretty rough with a whole coconut — perhaps giving rise to the expression, “This is a tough nut to crack!” They always reminded me of the “shrunken head from the Incas of Ecuador” that you could see at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis.
(Did you know, so many baby-boomer kids like me recalled that shrunken head that even though the Pink Palace has reconstituted its collections to represent only Memphis and Mid-South history, they’ve put the Inca exhibit with the shrunken head, along with some of the huge stuffed animals that Berry Brooks shot on his hunting expeditions to Africa back on display, very cleverly recognizing that these non-Memphis artifacts themselves represent an aspect of Memphis history because they were displayed in the city for so long. If you remember these things with the fondness that ghoulish little boys of my generation do, stop by the Pink Palace and have a look! It’ll bring back lots of fun memories, I promise!)
When I had grown tired of grandmother’s coconuts as toys, she would take an ice pick and hammer, and punch holes in the “eyes,” draining out all the juice, to save it for use in the recipes. Then, using a big chisel, she would deftly break each coconut into several big pieces, which would be put on a baking sheet and put in the oven. After these were done, the meat of the coconut would be separated from the brown shell, and the coconut would be shredded on a grater. You can see what hard work this was for a lady in her eighties — but both of my grandmothers cooked this way, and now I can understand why they said that ambrosia was “hard to make!”
Grandmother Winter’s Memphis house had a screened-in back porch where the leftover turkey and ham from Christmas dinner, as well as the ambrosia, coconut, English walnut, and German chocolate cakes would be stored in the cool of a Mid-South winter afternoon.
While everybody else visited or took naps around the fireplace in the late afternoon, I was allowed to slip out to the back porch and snack on all these goodies. Food never tasted so good!
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