When Owning a Pineapple Meant You’d Made It

It's got a fruity history.
May 2, 2018, 7:06am
pineapple
Illustration by Ben Thomson

This article is supported by Nando’s new Tropical Classic burger, wrap and pita, and tracks the weird history of pineapple around the world. Australians love pineapple. They loved it in the eighties in Women’s Weekly upside-down cakes, and they love it today in… more or less everything. Or not: debate over pineapple’s rightful or wrongful place on pizza, in burgers or in salads is fierce. Though that simply proves its huge national significance—as does our heritage-listed tourist attraction built in its honour. The story of the ananas comosus goes far beyond its sweet pulp and fun shape, however. In fact, the pineapple harbours a surprising social history that saw it cast for centuries as a barometer of wealth and privilege; the prize pick of the rich and the ranked.

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Nowhere was this clearer than class-obsessed 1600s England, where having a single pineapple displayed in your home issued a definitive statement about your place in society. So much so that ladies of the manor rented pineapples by the day from colonial grocers when they were expecting important dinner guests. After it was returned, that same pineapple would be sold to another hostess, possibly one rich enough to display the fruit and feed it to her guests.

But, writes anthropologist Kaori O’Connor in Pineapple: A Global History, even if you did have enough cash to actually eat the thing, “a terrible choice arose… should it be displayed, to enhance status, or should it be eaten, to satisfy curiosity?”

It was a “terrible choice” because pineapples were precious, even among the wealthy. And they were precious for the same reason anything becomes highly coveted: supply and demand. And hype. Following Christopher Columbus’s so-called discovery of the fruit, on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1493, pineapples began to reach the West by ship. But shipping was expensive, and most of the pineapples rotted before they arrived. And European gardeners had no clue how to grow them, especially in non-tropical climates.

All of which meant that accessing a pineapple was virtually impossible, unless you were impossibly rich. And yet, endless reports surfaced about how incredible they tasted. This frustrating combination of factors led to a pineapple obsession of sorts among the upper echelons. Even literary figures became obsessed with pineapples, writing odes to its prized yellow flesh. “Pineapple is great,” wrote British poet Christopher Lamb, overcome with swoon. “She is almost too transcendent … too ravishing for mortal taste … like lovers kisses she biteth - she is a pleasure bordering on pain.”

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Society’s great thinkers were preoccupied with pineapple too, borne mostly of frustration. Because how can you assess the otherworldliness of a pineapple when you couldn’t get your hands on one? “We cannot form to ourselves a just idea of it, without having tasted it,” wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume, quite rightly. Of course, this elusiveness only added to the fruit's allure.

Eventually, pineapple rose to the very top of the food chain, becoming known as the “King of Fruits” owing to its royal fans. In 1625, a pineapple was presented to James I of England, who declared after a single bite that this must have been “the apple” used by Eve to tempt Adam. England’s pineapple fever peaked properly in 1675, though, when King Charles II was gifted one by his royal gardener and immediately ordered an official royal portrait of the occasion. “Royalty considered the pineapple their due,” writes O’Connor, “for in addition to coming from faray climes … and at incalculable cost, the fruit seemed to be the very embodiment of majesty.”

Pineapple might have been a rare treat, but using its image as a branding tool became an everyday occurrence. Across England and the colonies, savvy business owners began to use it as a shorthand for luxury, with innkeepers plastering pineapples across their signage and carving them into bed posts. Architects and craftsmen did the same, using the pineapple as a symbol on wallpaper, luxury fabrics, silver, fine china, door knockers, and even plonked on top of buildings. “Pineapple decorations also appeared on the elaborate hairstyles of the period, which rose to great heights, embellished with elaborate status symbols,” writes O’Connor. “As the culinary anthropologist Sophie Coe put it, ‘The pineapple became not just a fruit, but the embodiment of everything the nobility liked to think it stood for.’”

The pineapple couldn’t be a celebrity forever, though, and several advancements in the early 1880s began to make it more “common”: hothouse technology from Holland, which allowed pineapples to be grown locally; the steamship, whose quicker journeys meant less rot; and social mobility in Victorian England.

This last factor was the death knell for pineapple’s overblown social cachet. It wasn’t long before the upwardly mobile could literally dine like kings, and the upper class viewed their every nouveau-riche bite as an affront. According to Pineapple: A Global History, one commentator of the time complained that “although a noble pine is an ornament to any table, it becomes rather commonplace when it is seen too often,” adding that they had heard rumours of one particular pineapple being passed around “a series of west-end dinner parties for some weeks.”

The aristocracy was even more repulsed by the sight of the King’s Fruit being munched by the working poor, who bought slices of average-grade pineapple for a penny from street merchants. But the social cachet of various foods meant less and less as industrialisation took over, and pineapple’s popularity was ultimately unharmed by Victorians’ class fixation. Instead, the invention of canning saw it rise to even dizzier heights, sweet golden rings appearing in salads, cakes, meatloaf, stuffings, sundaes, baked beans, weird toothpick cheese-cube combos, and more. So much more. So the King of Fruits couldn’t be the King of Fruits forever, but that was OK. As Columbus wrote when he stumbled across a pineapple for the first time in a tiny Caribbean village, only one thing really mattered in the end: “The fruit is excellent.”

This article is supported by Nando’s new Tropical Classic burger, wrap, and pita. You can find out more about the menu here.