Tuesday, December 6, 2016

So Why Pineapples?

by Helen Hollick

Have you ever noticed stone pineapples outside houses? Maybe to either side of the gateposts? Maybe freestanding in front of the house? The latter is not so common in the UK, it is more of a US thing, especially along the east coast, in Virginia, for instance.

It is a tasty, sweet, and healthy fruit to eat, but why pineapples? What is so special about them?

Until the latter part of the 17th century the pineapple was almost unique to the New World. It was discovered by that intrepid explorer, Christopher Columbus when he 'sailed the ocean blue in fourteen-hundred and ninety-two’.

An edible species from the Caribbean islands, it was a favourite food of the native Caribs (along with, if myth is to be believed, cannibalising humans!). Originally the fruit came from Brazil and Paraguay, traded by the sea-faring peoples in their dugout canoes. The plant was called ‘anana’ – excellent fruit. In English it came to be called Pineapple because of its spiky likeness to pine cones, the first reference to the name being in 1664. In Spanish they are called piña, again for the pine cone. You would recognise the name from the drink, piña colada.

Columbus came across this edible treat on his second voyage in 1493 when he landed on the volcanic island of Guadeloupe. Going ashore to explore a deserted native village he found the freshly gathered fruit piled ready to eat. He and his crew tried the feast out, and enjoyed the experience. (It is rumoured that they also found cooking pots with human remains inside. Fact or fiction? Who knows?).

Sweet fruits were rare in Europe, sugar cane was as rare – although become popular thanks to Sir Walter Raleigh and his like who followed in Columbus’s footsteps and returned home to England with all sorts of edible delights – and tobacco, which in hindsight from our view in the twenty-first century perhaps he should have left where it was. Because of its rarity, and the difficulty in keeping pineapple fresh during a long sea voyage, well into the 1600s the pineapple was regarded as the food of kings. It was also difficult to grow in our colder climate. 

So rare and uncommon was it that in 1665 Charles II had a painting commissioned to portray him receiving the first pineapple grown in England by John Rose, his royal gardener.

Life and living in the American Colonies had somewhat improved since the days of the first settlers. Towns, like Boston, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Williamsburg and Charleston were expanding rapidly. For the well-to-do, ‘visiting’ either for afternoon tea, or to dine, was one of the prime sources of entertainment. Social intercourse was a way to show-off what you had and an essential way to keep up with the local gossip and news. Status, and the ability to show it, was an essential element. Keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new! The Colonial hostess would seek subtle ways to brag about what she had and take great pains to out-do her neighbours. Elegant furniture, sumptuous and elaborate gowns, exquisite china and silver tableware, fine linens, expensive tea… food was displayed on platters and arranged in elaborate pyramid styles, often dripping with sugar. Dinner was a culinary delight and always extravagant. The laid table would be kept as a surprise, behind closed doors until the moment to reveal all came... Fresh fruit was a grand thing to be displayed, but topping it all would be the pineapple. It was rare, expensive, and wonderful to look at, touch – and eat. It was the crowning celebrity-status glory of the feast. To have one on display meant you’d made it to the top of the tree.

Preserved pineapple chunks were brought in by trade ships from the Caribbean – candied, glazed, packed in sugar, but the ultimate prize was the whole fruit. Only the fastest ships, the more capable captains and crew could get from A to B without the fruit rotting in the hold. To be able to display a fresh(ish) pineapple as your table centrepiece was the ultimate goal; it showed wealth, rank and resourcefulness. Getting hold of one from the confectioners’ stores was no easy task. But they were rarely eaten at these elaborate dinners – they were display objects only. Why? Because the hostess had probably not actually bought it. She had rented it. The confectioner would rent the fruit out by the day. One day for Mistress Holystone up at Fairings, the next, the Appleby’s at Four Chimneys, then on to Colonel and Lady Dawson at Whitegates… and no one was any the wiser, because who would be brave enough to commit social suicide by admitting to the fact?

The image of the pineapple standing proud atop its pyramid of fruit, or on a glass or china pedestal to be admired and ooh-and-ahed over soon began to symbolise a sense of hospitality, friendship, good cheer, delightful company, enjoyment and heartfelt welcome. Craftsmen soon cottoned on and throughout the Colonies pineapples carved from stone or wood, or moulded in copper, or even bronze, began to appear atop gateposts or alongside the front porch or door. They decorated public buildings, were used as weather vanes, appeared on door-lintels, as jewellery and trinkets, as tableware and embroidered on linen as tablecloths and napkins. Were used as pots, jars, lamps, cups…

Newport House B & B Williamsburg
you can just see the pineapple atop its plinth by the first
window to the right of the front door
here it is in close-up
(photos Cathy Helms www.avalongraphics.org
Displaying a pineapple today is nothing more than a quaint old-fashioned tradition, yet who can resist picking up a nice, fresh, pineapple from the supermarket shelves? I doubt you will be inclined to display it rather than eat it, though.

ADDENDUM: my good friend John F. Millar from Newport House has reminded me:
"Pineapple was the only tropical fruit that could (frequently, although not always) withstand a sailing voyage up to mainland North America (for example, bananas, mangoes, guavas and papayas could not survive, and so they were only consumed up north as jam or syrup). Pineapples came ripe only in December, so they were one of the first plants subject to modern genetic modification, such that they can now come ripe any time of year. That meant in the old days when pineapples reached North America they were usually considered to be connected with Christmas. Ship captains who had brought a few pineapples home with them would place a carved pineapple on a post in front of their house in order to show the neighbors that there was pineapple to be had, so they had better come in quickly to eat some before it was all gone. From there, pineapples became a symbol of hospitality, which they still are today, even if no one remembers why."
Thanks John.

Tobacco Coast - A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay and the Colonial Era
Arthur Pierce Middleton (John Hopkins University Press)


Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown). She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy - pirates being her present passion!

Connect with Helen through her Website, Blog, Facebook, Twitter (@HelenHollick), and through her Amazon Author’s Page

1 comment:

  1. Loved your post. I know now the reason why behind all of the garden and gate embelshments I see in old houses or palaces.
    Sad though that you didn't mentioned that the original word for pineaple is used in Europe - Ananas, for Central America or Abacaxi, for the Amazon region, being this fruit fristly planted in India by the Portuguese.
    And that, even if sugar from the cane was rare in remaining Europe, it wasn't so in the Iberian Peninsula. Although there is a geographical separation, it shouldn't be so in the study of History. Sugar was so important here that in Portugal, late 15th century, it's trade permits was given to convents. Sugar came from the first plantations in the archipelagos of Azores and Madeira. And it became so successful that it was the origin of the famour Portuguese convent sweets.


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