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When Ambrosia Salad Spells Dread

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Part of an ongoing series on unique holiday dishes

Daniel Davis, a tall, thin birch tree of a man, is willing to eat almost anything. Indeed, cooking and eating are two unadulterated pleasures in Dan's life. But he recently revealed to me, his wife, that there is one dish that, as a kid, he actually feared as Christmas drew near: ambrosia salad.

"Ambrosia salad" sounds like something really yummy. But Dan says that, every Christmas, when he and his family piled into the car for the long drive to his mother's family home in the mill town of Rumford, Maine, he knew what was waiting for him: green Jell-O mixed with Cool Whip, pineapples and cream cheese.

"It was the grossest looking and tasting thing ever. Ever," he says. "It was like eating a mouthful of something squishy and sugary and oddly rather airy. It was just electric green. What else more do I have to say?"

I needed to go to the source of Dan's Christmas pain. So I called my mother-in-law, Esther, to ask her if she knew that Dan just hated her Christmas ambrosia salad. She was shocked, which shocked Dan.

"I thought always I made it really clear that I didn't like it, and at least if by not saying it directly, it was never on my plate," he says.

It turns out that Esther called Dan's brother to ask what he thought of the dish.

Dan says, "I love the fact that he and I never talked about our dislike for the ambrosia salad but, you know, 30 years later, we both agree it was the worst thing ever."

So, of course we had to go to his mother's house to try it. When we arrived, she set to work, thinning out the cream cheese with the pineapple juice and folding in the Cool Whip and then the crushed pineapple. Finally, she added the crowning glory of green lime-flavored Jell-O and a festive smattering of red Maraschino cherries.

"It's very pretty," Esther says.

It took awhile, but we were finally able to cajole Dan into trying it — just to see if he still hated it.

"That terrifies me," Dan says when presented with a spoonful of his mom's ambrosia salad. "It looks like a Hitchcock film where the perspective shifts and everything's growing in size."

He eats it. The verdict? "Um, it's OK," he says generously, and then quickly reaches for a glass of water.

Like many of us, Dan has learned that the only way to get through Christmas is to ignore the red, white and green ambrosia salad jiggling next to the holiday ham and grin gamely.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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