Little Lari is snuggled in a blanket on the carpeted living room floor, watching Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena, the mighty princess forged in the heat of battle! (Whose distinct battle cry, by coincidence, can be perfectly reenacted by my mom.) In this episode, Xena has been mortally wounded, but hope is not lost! Her fearless compatriots are desperately racing to find ambrosia, the food of the gods, to bring her back to life.
Xena’s trusted companion, Gabrielle, risks her life to get her hands on a morsel of the (curiously) gelantinous blob of reddish-orange ambrosia. It finally appears, falling through a mystical sky portal with a crackle of lightning. Gabrielle successfully snags a small nugget of the ambrosia, then quickly feeds it to her slain partner. Once the ambrosia passes through Xena’s lips, it brings her back to life! Huzzah, Xena lives to fight another day!
(Thanks to the power of the Internet, you too can see the scene here on Youtube. Upon rewatching the scene now, it just looks like a monstrous blob of Jell-O.)
That memory of ambrosia sits so firmly in my mind, which brought about today’s topic. In today’s installment of “Food Questions,” I am wondering: “What’s the deal with ambrosia? What exactly is it?”
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the word. Ambrosia. It has a luxurious mouthfeel, containing that that delicious “zh/ʒ” sound. The word itself seems to encapsulate the veil of mythological grandeur surrounding it.
In terms of its etymology, ambrosia comes from Greek (which itself came from the Sanskrit “amṛta”). Meaning “undying” (a- [not], brotos [mortal]), ambrosia is the food the gods. It is a food (or drink) that bestows immortality, or alternatively, restores life to someone who has just passed away (as I learned from Xena!).
In the article “Manna, Nectar, and Ambrosia” Paul Hapt explains ambrosia’s mythological and historical origins. In Homeric poems, “nectar” refers to a drink, while “ambrosia” refers specifically to the food of the gods. Curiously, though, a more specific connotation of ambrosia is that of “fragrant fat.” When burning a sacrifice to the gods, it was said to be the “nidorous smell,” or the steam of the sacrifice (and not the meat itself) which nourished the gods. When the sea-god Proteus receives a visit from Menelaus, who must hide among freshly-flayed seal hides on the beach, his daughter puts ambrosia under his nose, so as to obscure the rancid odor. Indeed, it seems that the ancients also used scented greases for antiseptic purposes during embalming.
Nowadays, the word in its adjective form, ambrosial, may be used to describe that which is exceptionally delicious and/or fragrant. It describes that which is divine, worthy of the gods themselves.
Factoid: the Ambrosia Beetle is an insect that lives in holes bored into wood, living in a symbiotic relationship with hyphomycetous fungi (also known as “ambrosia fungi”) that coats the walls of their tunnels.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the American dessert, ambrosia salad. Especially in the southern United States, it seems to be a staple dessert on the Thanksgiving table. (As I originally hail from New England, I don’t have much experience with this dish.) While there are many variations, it is a fruit salad that commonly contains orange segments, pineapple, shredded coconut, and other various add-ins (such as mini marshmallows, nuts, grapes, chopped apple, maraschino cherries…), bound together with dairy (be it whipped topping, pudding, yogurt, or even sour cream).
This article explains that ambrosia salad came around in the late 1800’s, when citrus fruit became more readily available in American markets. According to the Food Timeline archive, though, ambrosia salad-like recipes came around even earlier (in the 1830’s), when coconut became available to American cooks. In Buckeye Cookery (1877) Estelle Wood Wilcox’s recipe includes oranges, pineapple and coconut, layered into a dish with a dusting of sugar between each layer. Alternatively, one could use a simpler array of fruits, as basic as orange and coconut.
No matter the precise origin of this dessert, I believe I can venture to guess that its name is more closely related to the “divine food of the gods,” rather than the “fragrant fat.”
While I can appreciate some tasty food history tidbits, I admit this classic American dish doesn’t do very much for my own tastes, which tend toward the savory.
So, let me finish with my own take on the ambrosial.
Back to Little Lari, with that image of Xena firmly implanted in my mind. It was the first time my mother brought home baby spinach for us to try. After some heavy close-up eyeballing (a habit I’ve carried into adulthood), I prepared myself for the taste.
As if I were casting a spell, I reverently whispered “ambrosia” aloud, and slipped the leaf onto my tongue. I remember being pleasantly surprised by the velvety, tender texture. (The flavor, not so much.) But I was entranced by the idea of having such veneration for food.
Baby spinach remains one of my favorite ingredients, to be treated with care. My favorite way (as in, the most luxurious way) to enjoy it is to toss a small mountain of it into freshly-made risotto, letting the leaves wilt and relax ever so slightly, before mounding it onto a plate with a healthy dusting of parmesan cheese.
To me, ambrosia is indeed life-giving. It is not only a tasty morsel to savor, but that which makes you thankful to have taste buds. Ambrosia makes you happy to be alive, and joyful to know the height of such gustatory pleasure. It represents the primordial delight that such an experience is possible.
Now that I’ve shared mine, I invite you to consider: What is your ambrosia?
Future Lari here: If you’re interested in more illustrated food history essays like this, consider checking out my newsletter, RENDERED. It is a continuation of this Food Questions series: free, monthly, in-depth essays, all researched and illustrated by me. Thanks!
Davidson, Alan and Tom Jaine, ed. The Oxford Companion to Food, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Haupt, Paul. “Manna, Nectar, and Ambrosia.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 61, no. 3, 1922, pp. 227–236. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/984230. Accessed 23 Apr. 2020.
“The History of Ambrosia.” Alabama Chanin Journal, https://journal.alabamachanin.com/2013/12/the-history-of-ambrosia/. Accessed 23 April 2020.
Olver, Lynne, ed. “The Food Timeline: Ambrosia,” http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq.html#ambrosia. Accessed 23 April 2020.