The History of the Pineapple

The birthplace of the pineapple is believed to be the heart of the Amazon rain forest in South America, where the indigenous population — broadly known as the Tupi but divided into many tribes — assigned the fruit an almost sacred status in their culture, using it to make medicine, employing it in rituals, and even making wine with it, in addition to deriving important nutritional benefits from its ingestion. Believing it to be an important symbol of fertility and prosperity, the Tupi named it anana, which in their native language translated to “excellent fruit.” (Most of the countries in the non-English speaking world still refer to it by this name.) As the indigenous population spread across South America and up into Central America and Mexico, the pineapple achieved a more widespread cultivation, assimilated into the horticulture of both the Mayans and Aztecs. It is believed that it was the Carib Indians — a fierce, warrior-like tribe of mariners inhabiting what would later be called the Windward Islands of the Caribbean — who first introduced the pineapple into the region during the Pre-Columbian era, having discovered it during their nautical journeys to the South American mainland. During his second voyage to the New World in 1493, Christopher Columbus came ashore with his crew on a lush volcanic island that is now called Guadeloupe, venturing through dense foliage until they came upon a deserted Carib village whose entrance was marked by wooden pillars carved with the shapes of serpents and surrounded by piles of fruit and vegetables, including pineapples. After cutting open the pineapples, the explorers discovered that the fruit's abrasive exterior — which resembled a pinecone — yielded a firm interior pulp like an apple, only sweeter than apples and arguably more flavorful to the palates of men from Renaissance Europe, where a now-common sweet such as sugar was then a rare commodity imported at great cost from the Middle East and the Orient. Columbus named this fruit pina de indes (pine of the indians), becoming the first European in the historical record to come across the pineapple (anana to the Caribs). In due course the explorers who followed Columbus came to a broader understanding of the fruit’s significance to the Caribs, for whom it was a staple of feasts and religious rites in addition to a sign of hospitality, its placement at the entrance to a village serving as a signal of welcome to outsiders.

Columbus’ return trip to Europe proved to be an early indicator of what explorers in his wake would in due time confirm: that pineapples were extremely difficult to transport, most of them rotting during the slow, hot voyage from the Caribbean to Europe (and later the American Colonies). Combined with the fact that, like refined sugar, fresh fruit was also very rare in Europe, pineapples almost immediately became an item of celebrity and curiosity, a much sought-after status symbol and delicacy whose possession was representative of wealth and opulence. In 1516 King Ferdinand of Spain reputedly called the only pineapple to have survived a voyage from the New World “the best thing” he ever tasted, and a 1675 portrait of King Charles II of England by the Dutch artist Hendrick Danckerts, in which the King is shown being presented with a pineapple from the royal gardener, has been deemed by many historians to be the consummate display of royal privilege, an example of the almost priceless value of even a single pineapple. (Even though several “hothouses” were producing pineapples by this time in Europe, the fruit’s availability was still extremely limited.) Other monarchs who were devotees of the pineapple included Louis XV of France and Catherine the Great of Russia, further enhancing the pineapple’s reputation in Europe as the “king of fruit.”

The history of the pineapple in the American Colonies, though in some ways similar to that of Europe, has a much closer connection to the pineapple’s ancient association with hospitality. Though it is true that a single pineapple during the Colonial Period could cost upward of what today would be equivalent to several thousand dollars, it is also true that the colonists found creative ways to express a communitarian spirit through the presence of this rare and special fruit. During this time, the homes in the small towns and settlements of Colonial America functioned as the hub of community activity; social gatherings in people’s homes served as the primary means of entertainment, cultural intercourse, and the dissemination of news. Thus, hospitality was a central component in the society’s daily life. Hostesses of such gatherings would put their best efforts into creating innovative food displays for their guests. Tabletops came to resemble “small mountain ranges” of food, flowers, and figurines made of china; these tiered and pedestaled displays often featured pineapples as the literal “crown" of the feast, placed at the pinnacle of the table’s central food mound. Because of the cost and difficulty of transporting the fruit from the Caribbean in its natural state, pineapples often took the form of “sweetmeats,” the product of a process in which the fruit was either candied or packed in sugar in an effort to prevent spoilage. Still, the cost of procuring pineapples in any form remained too high even for well-to-do shoppers. Accordingly, a market emerged in which many hostesses would rent a pineapple for their event, returning it following the conclusion of the festivities for its actual sale and consumption by more affluent colonists. But the symbolic gesture engendered by the mere presence of a pineapple at the table evolved over time into a cultural ritual, with the pineapple coming to express the warmest possible greeting a hostess could extend to her guests, who felt deeply honored by a hostess who spared no expense in her effort to facilitate a communal feeling of inclusiveness and respect. This gesture of friendship and hospitality extended to other areas of the house, with the image of a pineapple often carved into bedposts, headboards, and armoires, and a guest who was spending the night would consider it a great privilege to be given a room containing such artistic flourishes. The welcoming symbolism represented by pineapples became a favored motif of colonial architects, craftsmen, and artisans. In this regard, the image of the pineapple spread to copper and brass weathervanes on public buildings; door lintels; carpets, tablecloths, draperies, and napkins; and the backs of chairs and tops of chests. Moreover, during this period a legend took hold in the Colonies that sailors — particularly in New England — would place pineapples on the gateposts of their homes (similar to the Pre-Columbian tradition in the Caribbean) to let neighbors know that they had returned safely from their voyage, and welcoming them to visit and hear stories about their adventures while at sea. Though many historians question the veracity of this legend — particularly due to economic considerations — the fact that these stories continue to maintain a hold on the collective American imagination is testimony to the power of the pineapple’s symbolism in this regard.

In post-Revolutionary War America, agrarian entrepreneurs began growing small clusters of pineapples in hothouses, turning them into a cash crop. (Even George Washington reportedly grew them at his estate in Mt. Vernon.) During this period, the pineapple became one of the symbols of the new, fledgling country, representing not only a welcoming attitude, but also becoming synonymous with American virtues such as individuality and independence. As the traditions associated with the pineapple grew, innkeepers added the pineapple to their signs and advertisements, particularly in the South, where bedposts carved into the shape of a pineapple became a common sight (and where today the pineapple is still a popular motif for gateposts, door knockers, welcome mats, and even business cards). Though by the late 19th century American life no longer revolved around the dining room table, the pineapple, placed atop the towering display of apples, pinecones, and holly and fir leaves at many Christmastime celebratory tables, came to represent the true spirit of the holiday, a crowning symbol of the season of generosity and goodwill.

With the mass production of pineapples underway in places such as Hawaii and Florida, the twentieth century saw the pineapple return to its ancient roots as a universally available fruit. As a symbol of friendship and hospitality it came full circle, with several modern countries in the Caribbean honoring the fruit’s Pre-Columbian origins and meanings in an official capacity: The historic Philipsburg Courthouse, built in 1793 on the island of St. Maarten, has a gold-painted, wooden pineapple crowning the cupola on the architectural landmark’s roof, a sign of welcome to the international community, making the island one of the Caribbean’s premier tourist destinations; the government of the Bahamas (where the pineapple was first commercially produced, on the island of Eleuthera) mints its ubiquitous five cent coin with an image of a pineapple on the reverse side; and three Caribbean nations — the Cayman Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and Jamaica — have made the fruit an essential element of their national coats of arms, with an image of a pineapple topping the coats of arms of both the Cayman Islands and Antigua and Barbuda (Antigua being the home of the uniquely sweet black pineapple). But it is the coat of arms of Jamaica that perhaps best reflects the essence of the deep spiritual attachment between this special, almost sacred fruit and the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean and Mesoamericathe design features a representation of a male and female member of one of the Pre-Columbian tribes standing on either side of a shield bearing a red cross, within which is inset five golden pineapples. At the bottom of the coat of arms lies the Jamaican national motto: Out of many, one people.

Written June 2018 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.

© The Lusher Gallery, LLC July 2018.  All rights reserved.  No portion of the material described herein may be reproduced in whole or in part without the prior written consent of The Lusher Gallery LLC.