Shredded chicken combined with mayo and mustard is a salad — and so is that classic mix of fresh or canned fruits with toasted coconut, sweetened whipped cream, and a touch of mayo — ambrosia salad. Some Southerners would say that mayo is one of the unifying features, but a combination of finely chopped fresh cranberries, cream cheese, whipped topping, and miniature marshmallows is also, in fact, a salad.
Add this pear salad to the conversation and the Southern salad discourse gets even more interesting. It includes just five ingredients: A half of a canned pear is topped with a generous dollop of mayonnaise. Not a small, hesitant spoonful — a mound. Then, it gets a healthy sprinkle of cheddar cheese and is crowned with a neon red maraschino cherry. The pear is served on a bed of iceberg or romaine lettuce leaves.
It appears that salad first appeared in 1899 in “The American Salad Cookbook,” but sans cheddar cheese and the cherry on top. This unique dish could have been popularized in the early- to mid-1900s when salads often included convenience foods, canned goods, mayonnaise, aspic, and savory ingredients set in fruit gelatin.
While those from the region seem split on whether it is delectable or should be skipped, Southern pear salad is definitely bold. Folks from states like Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, and New Orleans either nostalgically remembered the dish from school lunches, holiday celebrations, their grandparents’ kitchens, special occasions, and Sunday dinners, or avoided it at all costs.
It is understandable why mayo-laden canned fruit may be divisive, but you can also pretty easily see why this flavor combination could totally make sense. Consider a spring mix salad loaded with pears and creamy blue cheese, or a sandwich with layers of cheddar, sliced pears, and a spread of mayo instead of butter for a crispy grilled cheese. A Waldorf salad pairs apples with mayonnaise, and a celebratory Korean side dish called gwa-il-saeleodeu combines fresh fruit, raisins, peanuts, and boiled eggs in a mayonnaise and mustard dressing.
Sweet and savory combinations are pretty delicious, and Southern pear salad definitely falls into this genre. The sweetness of the pear and the richness of the mayonnaise are balanced by the sharpness of the cheddar cheese. The lettuce provides crunch and freshness. As for the maraschino cherry, well, they are just plain cute.
What other fruity southern salads are out there?
There is nothing wrong with keeping a retro dish classic, but there are definitely some variations. Other versions of Southern pear salad use a ring of canned pineapple in place of the pear, substitute cottage cheese for the mayo, and the official Duke’s mayonnaise Southern pear salad recipe specifically calls for butter lettuce and extra-sharp white cheddar cheese. The company also has a recipe for a grape, orange, and pecan salad dressed in sweetened cream cheese and, of course, mayonnaise.
Strawberry pretzel salad hits a sweet and savory note and is made up of layers of cream cheese frosting, strawberry gelatin, and sweetened sour cream all on a crumbled pretzel crust. Orange sherbet salad combines orange gelatin and melted orange sherbet for the base, and then gets mixed with whipped cream, canned fruits, and mini marshmallows. Fluff salads are another Southern (and Midwestern) salad category that usually get their creamy lightness from whipped topping like in Watergate dessert salad — it combines crushed pineapple, instant pistachio pudding mix, whipped topping, chopped nuts, and mini marshmallows. In the South, a salad like this is just as happy on the dessert table as it is alongside the mains.