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Frog Eye Salad: a Classic Western Thanksgiving Dish Explained

United States Holidays
by Elisabeth Sherman Oct 14, 2020

With Thanksgiving around the corner, you might be perusing the internet for dessert recipes that go beyond the tried-and-true pumpkin pie, and in the course of that journey there is a chance you will come across a dish called frog eye salad. If you grew up or live outside of the Western United States — specifically Utah, Colorado, Idaho, or Wyoming — you’ve likely never encountered it before.

Forget everything you know about dessert, salad, and pasta. You know what, forget everything you know about frogs, too, while you’re at it. Because while frog eye salad might share similarities with its distant cousin ambrosia (sometimes also known as Hawaiian salad), this dish is an altogether different variety of the slice of American cuisine known as the dessert salad.

Where frog eye salad comes from

Though there’s no hard evidence that points to the exact origins of frog eye salad, the general consensus is that it was most likely invented in the kitchens of Mormon housewives. In fact, it’s still one of the most popular dishes among the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community. In 2010, The Atlantic published a guide to Mormon cuisine that included frog eye salad, and the Temple Square Temple blog explicitly calls frog eye salad a “Mormon recipe.”

That being said, it’s popular throughout the region, and it’s likely to pop at family reunions, potlucks, and funeral repasts. Its moment in the spotlight really arrives on Thanksgiving, though, when it’s often the centerpiece of the dessert spread. In 2014, the New York Times found that it was the most-searched-for Thanksgiving recipe in Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming. And in case you need more evidence that frog eye salad is a signature Thanksgiving dish, Rachel, the popular blogger behind Eazy Peazy Meals (who, coincidentally, attended the LDS-affiliated Brigham Young University) says it’s her “go-to Thanksgiving side.”

It has a long history outside the LDS church, too. Sarah, who runs the recipe blog Vintage Dish & Tell, includes some fascinating history on the origins of frog eye salad’s popularity in the midwest: Sarah first came across frog eye salad in a recipe book from 1992, pulled together by congregates of St. Philip’s Lutheran Church in Plymouth, Minnesota. She managed to track down the lady credited with adding frog eye salad to the recipe cook, one Marlene Roberts.

Roberts recalls first spotting the recipe for frog eye salad on the back of a box of Creamette Acini Di Pepe pasta, and that her mother made the dessert in the late 60s and 70s, too. In the St. Philip’s cookbook, Roberts writes that “This is a family favorite for large gatherings, e.g. baptisms, confirmations, graduation, etc.”

How to make frog eye salad

Unlike traditional ambrosia, which is a combination of marshmallows, whipped cream, and canned fruit, frog eye salad is technically a pasta salad. The central ingredient is acini di pepe, a style of pasta similar in shape and size to couscous (the Italian name translates to “seeds of pepper”). Acini di pepe also explains the odd, potentially off-putting, name of this dish because the cooked pasta looks like frog eyes in the final product. The pasta also creates a texture similar to rice pudding or tapioca pudding.

To make this salad, you first have to make a custard, which is sometimes flavored with pineapple juice. Once it’s been refrigerated for at least two hours, you add your toppings, which is where the fun begins. Most folks add the classic standbys like canned mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks, and Cool Whip folded into the custard, but it’s easy to customize with banana slices, mini-marshmallows, coconut flakes, and maraschino cherries. There is no lettuce, and definitely no frogs, required to enjoy this salad.

So does it taste good?

Many blog posts refer to frog eye salad as some variation on a “super old school” classic that showed up at all sorts of family gatherings. That, or a “staple” that aunts and moms brought to potlucks and holiday dinners. But it’s worth pointing out that opinions are mixed about whether or not it’s actually a beloved holiday dish.

One message board for people who no longer practice the Mormon religion confess that they ate frog eye salad throughout their youth but never enjoyed it. (“As for frog-eye salad, I’m not a fan. I remember eating it in [third] grade when my teacher, Mrs. Weisner, brought it for a treat. Because I was a child and didn’t know any better, I thought it was good at the time. A few years later I wised up,” writes one user). However, one of the Mormon bloggers behind Six Sisters Stuff writes that frog eye salad “is my all time favorite food.” The blogger behind This Is How We Bingham put her devotion to frog eye salad in even stronger terms: “I feel like this is a recipe I will be making until I die,” she wrote.

It’s safe to say this whipped delight is divisive, but the best way to find out for sure is to try it for yourself before you dismiss it completely. And you certainly don’t have to be a member of the LDS church to appreciate frog eye salad. In a short essay for The Mormon Times, writer Melissa DeMoux put it best: “From the dinner table to the serving table iconic Mormon foods show up everywhere. Some are fabulous, some are just plain weird, but there is a special place in our hearts — and stomachs — for each of these dishes.”

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