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Vegan Cookbook Club: Updating ambrosia for modern tastes

Dandies marshmallows are made with no animal products. Steve Kuchera /

Ambrosia — nectar of the Gods in Greek mythology. Also, the iconic refrigerator fruit salad of the 1960s. It was typically made with canned pineapple, canned mandarin oranges, sweetened shredded coconut, miniature marshmallows, and a tub of Cool Whip. Fluffy and sweet, it was a much-loved summertime dessert and potluck item.

The last time I had ambrosia was probably 40 years ago when I was a teenager on our farm in Indiana. This pleasant memory was resurrected by thoughts about marshmallows.

Did you know that the name "marshmallow" refers to the mallow plant that likes to grow in swampy places and whose root, when cooked, is soothing for coughs and sore throats? Mixed with honey, it was also a confection that was enjoyed by the Egyptians as long ago as 2000 BC.

A new and popular marshmallow candy was invented in France in the early 19th century. The marshmallow root pulp was whipped with egg whites to produce a frothy dessert. What we know as the modern marshmallow did not appear until the 1950s. By that time, the actual plant root was no longer used, and the recipe was basically water, sugar, corn syrup and gelatin.

Gelatin — like the egg whites in earlier formulations — provides structure to keep the mixture aerated. It's also what makes standard marshmallows non-vegan. Gelatin is made of collagen from animal skins, bones and connective tissue, a by-product of factory farming.

At a Vegan Cookbook Club meeting, Shawna Weaver said that one of her favorite foods to share is vegan marshmallows. As the Humane Education Manager of Animal Allies and creator of the "Duluth Vegan Community" Facebook page, Shawna is a dedicated animal welfare advocate. Shawna told me, "As a kid, I was uncomfortable with the idea of eating something that was once alive — like my pets. As I got older, I learned more about the cruelties, environmental problems, and social justice issues that are connected to the factory farming system."

Inspired by Shawna, I use a brand of vegan marshmallows called "Dandies." They are made by Chicago Vegan Foods and the ingredients are tapioca syrup, cane sugar, water, tapioca starch, carrageenan, soy protein and vanilla. No corn syrup. No gelatin. My teenage daughter, a marshmallow connoisseur, gives Dandies two thumbs up! They are sold locally; other brands of vegan marshmallows are available online.

Circling around to my opening reminiscences about ambrosia, here is the refrigerator fruit salad updated and vegan-friendly! The recipe is easily adapted to your taste. Use the fruits you like. Options include strawberries, mangoes, cherries and blueberries. Feel free to omit the coconut if you don't care for it. Experiment with different dressings. (Many "nondairy" whipped toppings contain dairy — read the labels.)

I'm sure if the Greek Gods had had refrigerators, they would have enjoyed ambrosia like this!

Ambrosia is a fruit salad that is easily adapted to your taste. Photo by Emma Ambrosi


Makes generous 4 cups (about 8 servings)

1 14-oz or 20-oz can pineapple tidbits in juice, well drained

1 cup orange segments (mandarins, clementines, tangerines, etc; if using full-sized oranges, cut each segment into thirds)

1 cup green grapes (cut each grape in half)

½ cup shredded coconut

1 cup vegan whipped topping such as SoDelicious CocoWhip or ¾ cup vegan sour cream or 1 cup plant-based yogurt

8 vegan marshmallows, cut into sixths

Mix well and refrigerate until ready to eat.

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Did you know ... Mahatma Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

Bonnie Ambrosi lives in Duluth and is an organizer of The Vegan Cookbook Club which meets at 11:30 a.m. on the first Thursday of every month at Mount Royal Branch Library. Contact Ambrosi at