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FOOD 101: Fruit Cocktail History

May 13th is National Fruit Cocktail Day.

We’re all familiar with cans of fruit cocktail from Del Monte, Dole and Libby’s. But who first created it, and why is it called “cocktail?”

First: There is no alcohol in a conventional fruit cocktail. So why is it called fruit cocktail, instead of simply fruit salad?

There’s a second definition of “cocktail,” as in shrimp cocktail: “An appetizer made by combining pieces of food, such as fruit or seafood.”

However, the smart money says that when you’re selling canned fruit, “fruit cocktail” sounds more exciting than “mixed fruits.”

While fruit cocktail is sold canned, it can be made fresh and served in a coupe glass or other stemmed glass, where it puns on an alcoholic cocktail. Serve fresh fruit salad in a stemmed glass, tossed with some Grand Marnier—one of our mother’s favorite preparations, garnished with a fresh mint leaf—and it’s even more so.

The USDA actually stipulates the ingredients in canned fruit cocktail. It must contain grapes, peaches, and pineapples; optional maraschino cherries and other fruits are permitted. The percentages are dictated [source]:

  • 30% to 50% diced peaches, any yellow variety
  • 25% to 45% diced pears, any variety
  • 6% to 16% diced pineapple, any variety
  • 6% to 20% whole grapes, any seedless variety
  • Few to no cherry halves, any light sweet or artificial red variety
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    The original fruit cocktail sat in a sugar syrup. More recently, with consumer demands for less sugar, lower-sugar varieties are available in natural fruit juices (“no sugar added,” although fruit juice has natural sugar).

    The difference between fruit cocktail and fruit salad is that the latter contains larger pieces of fruit, while fruit cocktail is diced into like-size pieces.
     
     
    THE HISTORY OF FRUIT COCKTAIL

    Who first named this childhood delight?

    Well: According to ancient Greek philosopher Plato, necessity is the mother of invention.

    The canning industry generally agrees that fruit cocktail was developed as a way make use of the fruit scraps left when bruised or otherwise damaged fruits could not be used in canning.

    Fruit cocktail has been a staple of the canned fruit industry since at least the 1940s, and was one of the most popular products Del Monte produced at the plant, from 1941 until the plant’s closure in 1999.

    What company first came up with the mix of fruits, and named the result “fruit cocktail”, is not absolutely certain.

    Here are the contenders:

  • 1893: Canner J.C. Ainsley of Campbell, California began marketing a canned “fruit salad” in 1893, under the Golden Morn label. According to the Campbell Historical Museum, the fruit salad contained cherries as well as diced fruits. The name was not fruit cocktail; however, the Golden Morn Fruit Cocktail Label below, from the San Jose Museum, purports to be from 1920.
  • 1930: Herbert Gray of San Jose’s Barron-Gray Packing Company. A 1958 article in the journal Canner and Packer, “100 Years of Canning in the West,” credited Gray with invention of fruit cocktail in 1930. Gray himself restated this in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News in 1969.
  • 1938: Calpak’s “new” Fruit Cocktail debuted under the Del Monte label in 1938.
  • TBD: Food science academics give credit for fruit cocktail to Dr. William V. Cruess, a pioneer in the field and professor at U.C. Berkeley from 1911 until 1954. Dr. Cruess’ research focused on the use of fruit culls (culling out the bruised and damaged) and by-products.
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    Del Monte Fruit Cocktail
    [1] Del Monte Fruit Cocktail, in the modern “no sugar added” recipe. You can still buy it in its original sugar syrup (photo courtesy Del Monte).

    Fruit Cocktail Cupcakes
    [2] Fruit cocktail as a cupcake topper. Here’s the recipe from Yummy.

    Ambrosia Fruit Salad
    [3] Ambrosia, a retro fruit salad popular at ladies’ lunches. It adds mini marshmallows, sliced bananas, shredded coconut and sour cream (the modern take is vanilla yogurt or, eek, Cool Whip) to fruit cocktail. Here’s the recipe from Taste Of Home.

    Fruit Cocktail Fluff
    [4] The advent of Marshmallow Fluff engendered this version of ambrosia. Here’s the recipe from The Kitchen Is My Playground.

     
    It may be that Herbert Gray or Del Monte read his recommendations in a trade article.

    Whomever the father of fruit cocktail may be, consumers were introduced to the product as a stylish dessert suitable for formal dinner parties and entertaining (source).

    In the 1930s, canned foods were appreciated for their convenience and did not have the “not as good as fresh” association that evolved in the 1970s, thanks to the proselytizing of Alice Waters and the evolution of “California cuisine.”

    Take your pick!
     
     
    USES FOR CANNED FRUIT COCKTAIL

    We’re big on fresh fruits and vegetables, but we keep some cans of each in the pantry to use “in a pinch.”

    We admit to keeping canned pineapple chunks in case we run out of fresh melon for our morning cottage cheese or plain yogurt. And there’s always a can of no-sugar-added fruit cocktail for when we’re having a fruit attack, but have no fresh fruit.

    We took a quick survey and found that others we know use canned fruit cocktail:

  • In yogurt.
  • As a sauce for ham.
  • As a topping for frozen yogurt or sorbet.
  • Chopped and added to plain salsa for a quick fruit salsa.
  • As a stuffing for avocado halves.
  • Tossed into dump cake or muffin mix (here’s a recipe for fruit cocktail coffee cake).
  • Added to Stovetop Stuffing.
  • Used to make sweet and sour chicken or pork.
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    And of course…

  • Added to Jell-O.
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    Golden Morn Fruit Cocktail label
    [5] Golden Morn Fruit Cocktail label, ca. 1920 (photo courtesy San Jose Museum).
     

      




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