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Is a fruit salad just fresh produce tossed into a bowl or congealed madness? Discuss.

Fresh produce is displayed in a 7-Layer Fruit Salad.
Fresh produce is displayed in a 7-Layer Fruit Salad. MCT

I can’t figure out fruit salad.

Is it a side dish or a dessert? The non-cook’s last refuge when the ice and chips are already taken on the office potluck sign-up sheet, or a legitimate culinary creation?

I have never awoken in the morning thinking that I will be bereft if I have not eaten fruit salad by nightfall. Rarely have I been excited about seeing fruit salad on a buffet, unless everything else was battered, deep-fried and sitting in pools of grease. The fruit’s acidity serves as a pleasing contrast to the other foods’ richness, providing balance on the plate (that’s food writer-speak; don’t try it at home).

And what constitutes a fruit salad, as opposed to just, well, a lot of fruit?

I raised the existential question of fruit salad to The Hub, who said, “What about fruit cocktail?”

I don’t think that stuff in the can is actually fruit. Sugar-soaked cotton balls, maybe.

Bowls of fruit masquerading as salads have been around at least since Cleopatra’s time (watch out for that asp) but I think the idea should involve more than simply: chop melon, dump in bowl, place on table.

By my definition, probably the original fruit salad is the Waldorf. Invented in 1893 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, it’s clearly a side dish rather than a companion to pies or tortes. Tart apples are combined with celery, raisins, walnuts and mayonnaise for an experience that’s savory, not sweet.

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The original Waldorf salad, simply lettuce, diced apples and celery tossed in a good-quality mayonnaise, in New York, Feb. 13, 2017. T ANDREW SCRIVANI NYT

At another end of the fruit salad spectrum lies ambrosia, the frosty melange of sweetened coconut, pineapple, maraschino cherries, pecans and citrus fruit, which Southerners pile into their grandmothers’ crystal bowls for holidays. My grandmother made it with canned pineapple and mandarin oranges, plus mini marshmallows, and insisted on serving it as a salad. The sweet mound was a bit jarring next to a tray of deviled eggs but, hey, it was just once a year. At least she didn’t add whipped topping to the mixture, as some recipes do. She had standards.

Rarely does a single event alter the direction of history, but something happened in the early 20th century that did just that for the fruit salad. The popularity of Jell-O changed the course of the salad course, pushing fruit salads even closer to (I might say over) the precipice of dessert. The gelatin scored $1 million in sales in 1906 (that’s approximately $27 million today). That’s a lot of grapes floating in lime green stuff.

Jean Anderson says in her wonderful book “The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century” that, thanks to Jell-O, it was the century when fruit salads’ place on the table began to wobble.

As evidence, most of the recipes in the fruit salad section of “The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book,” new as of 1976, that is, offer fruit in a state of suspended animation, in molds that are sliced and served on lettuce leaves. One recipe for Jubilee Salad Mold embeds raspberries and cherries in raspberry gelatin with currant jelly and lemon juice.

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Ambrosia from “Dishes & Beverages of the Old South by Martha McCulloch-Williams, a facsimile of the original published in 1913. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

In 1922, Good Housekeeping magazine offered a recipe for Imperial Salad: the juice from half a can of pineapple, vinegar, lemon Jell-O, sliced canned pineapple, pimentos, and cucumber combined and chilled in individual molds, which were served on lettuce with a creamy dressing.

But making an alleged salad into a sugary lava lamp wasn’t enough. It was also the era of the frozen fruit salad.

Beth Tartan was the revered food editor for the Winston-Salem Journal in my hometown for decades. The 1964 edition of her “Beth Tartan’s Cook Book” offers a concoction of cream cheese, mayonnaise, cream, canned pineapple, orange, canned cherries, nuts, maraschino cherries, whipped cream and sugar, which is frozen, cut into blocks and served, of course, on lettuce leaves.

All this leaves me still wondering about fruit salad. Is it chunks of naked fruit tossed unceremoniously into a bowl or congealed madness?

There’s just one answer.

As a fig leaf can cover one’s sins, evidently a lettuce leaf makes anything a salad.

Debbie Moose is a freelance food writer and cookbook author. She can be reached at debbiemoose.com, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
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