by Leslie Gilman
For most of my childhood, I had no idea that “fruit salad” could possibly mean anything other than the corn-syrupy goodness that emerged from the shadowy depths of a can of Dole’s Tropical Fruit Salad. And if it did exist, I certainly didn’t want it – not without the slippery peaches, translucent “grapes” and red dye #40 maraschino cherries. While Dole’s Tropical Fruit Salad may have been a “special treat” on regular nights, at Christmastime ol’ Dole’s was transformed into my mother’s legendary Frozen Fruit Salad, a mysterious and heavenly substance that appeared last on our long banquet table, to the raucous cheers of many. Cranberry sauce didn’t stand a chance next to Frozen Fruit Salad – we kids even turned our noses up at pumpkin and pecan pies when they were served hours later. We just wanted one more slice of the frosted marshmallowy treat. Every year.
As we grew older and began bringing boyfriends and girlfriends home to our holiday meals, we solemnly shared with them that, at this holiday meal, they would be invited to partake in the eating of the Frozen Fruit Salad. Some were mildly impressed, others scornfully (and to the loss of the budding relationship) rejected it, and a few, the keepers, celebrated in our enthusiasm. It wasn’t until my little brother, the first of us three kids to get married, invited my sister and me to his new wife’s house for the holiday meal that we first learned how to actually make Frozen Fruit Salad. (My parents, meanwhile, were living in France and at that exact moment, learning how to cook in decidedly un-Frozen-Fruit-Salad like ways.) The recipe, scribbled in my mom’s hand, was strange at best. There was, of course, an abundance of Dole’s Tropical Fruit Salad, which served as the cornerstone of the pièce de résistance. The syrup of the salad was to be drained and boiled, then marshmallows added, and finally, after a few other inconsequential ingredients, it was mixed with a hefty dose of, OMG – mayonnaise. My brother, sister and I stared at each other in horrific disbelief. Our prized family dessert, the food that we travelled home for from exotic, faraway lands, was mostly made of frozen mayonnaise? My sister almost barfed. I felt betrayed by my sensible taste buds that could be wooed so cheaply, for so long. My brother, who grew up drinking Jell-O mix out of the box, quickly got over it. And his new wife probably reconsidered her options.
The Frozen Fruit Salad wasn’t the usual hit that year. We all tried to pretend like it was the old days and heaped generous squares of the stuff on to our plates, but then sort of sadly pushed it around with a fork, watching it glide smoothly, leaving a glistening trail of mayonnaise behind it. Since then, we have all become a little savvier in our culinary endeavors. My brother now bakes the bread, albeit from a box mix, my sister makes sweet potatoes laced with brandy that are to die for, and I usually fill in the holes as necessary. But the Frozen Fruit Salad is always there, an honored relic of our past, hallowed in its time honored spot at the center of our table. And we all know that it simply wouldn’t be Christmas without it.