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Fluffy Bites of Heaven

Sunday, May 8, 2005; Page M04

My parents categorically present a unified front -- except when it comes to ambrosia salad.

My Michigan-based father's family serves this fluffy marshmallow, orange and pineapple concoction at absolutely any opportunity, like potlucks, cookouts and even holiday dinners. My New England-born-and-bred mother is baffled by this sweet salad's status -- her traditional upbringing places this dish on the dessert tray, maybe, but certainly not the dinner table. And come Thanksgiving, her bemusement becomes more like resentment. (She's even been heard muttering, "Neither the Pilgrims nor the Indians raised marshmallows.") What Mom doesn't buy is what all ambrosia aficionados know: Nothing says "celebration" like marshmallows at a meal.

Sharing the gourmet ambrosia salad from a martini glass makes it all the more appetizing. (Photos Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)

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To settle this family friction once and for all, I invited my parents and friends for a fete featuring both the traditional Martin ambrosia and a more refined Mom-inspired version, minus the marshmallows and garnished with mint. I accompanied the food of the gods with Grandma Martin's standard welcome-home fare: sloppy Joes, cut-up veggies and lip-smacking potato chips. Back in Michigan, we'd slurp down Vernor's pop, a divine cross between ginger ale and cream soda. But that libation is tough to track down outside the Wolverine State, so Mom poured a taste of New England instead, with a bottle of sparkling apple cider.

As everyone sampled the spread, more family confessions about ambrosia were shared. It seems just about anything can pass for this marshmallow melange -- from versions with fruit cocktail, pistachio pudding, whipped cream, coconut, and even red and green maraschino cherries come Christmas. Almost everyone had their own version of the ambrosia conflict, too -- but without a little controversy, life would just be boring.

The final verdict? The Martin recipe is great -- as a dessert. And the gourmet incarnation -- which even won over my mother -- is suitable as a salad for any occasion. Even Thanksgiving. S.E. Congdon-Martin

Got an excuse to bring people together? E-mail ideas to gatherings@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and daytime phone number.

Don't want to cook? Try the heavenly concoction at one of these area establishments: Bubba's Bar-B-Q. 7810-F Lee Hwy., Falls Church. 703-560-8570. www.bubbasbarbq.com. You can order the down-home eatery's fluffy ambrosia salad, called Southern Fruit Salad, which incorporates fruit, sour cream, mayonnaise and marshmallows, through the catering department. ($24.95 per gallon.) Old Country Buffet. Multiple locations. www.buffet.com. The mystery of when to serve ambrosia lives grows on: At these massive all-you-can-eat restaurants, the traditional marshmallow ambrosia -- similar to the Martin family favorite -- is part of the weekend breakfast buffet (about $7; availability may vary by location). Safeway. Multiple locations. www.safeway.com. The supermarket offers pre-packaged ambrosia (about $2.50) under its house brand "The Deli Counter." Though smashing the salad into the packaging diminishes its trademark fluffiness, the flavor is spot on. Wegmans. 45131 Columbia Place, Sterling. 703-421-2400. www.wegmans.com. Coming soon to the fresh fruit bar: ambrosia! This location of the specialty market will sell the salad for the first time this summer ($5.99 per pound).

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