Although the pineapple had been widely disseminated for centuries among the native peoples of South and Central America, it didn’t figure in European history until 1493. That’s when Christopher Columbus first encountered it on the island of Guadalupe, heaped among other fruits next to a pot full of stewing human body parts. (It’s interesting to imagine his reaction.)
The explorer dubbed it piña de Indes, because of its resemblance to the reproductive organ of conifer trees, the pinecone, but most non-English speakers today know it as ananas, or “excellent fruit,” derived from the Guarani language of Paraguay, where the pineapple first originated. When it arrived in sugar-deficient Europe, the rich, fleshy, candy-sweet explosion of flavor it bestowed on the eater turned it into a celebrity overnight, even more fabled because nobody could figure out how to cultivate it. For over two hundred years, Europeans could eat only imported pineapple; finally, they figured out how to grow the fruit in greenhouses.
Across the Atlantic, in the scattered, far-flung, rural settlements of colonial America, hospitality had become a central concern, and hostesses, like peacocks displaying their iridescent plumage, tried to outdo one another with their creative food displays. Dining-room tables were turned into fantasias of mounded, pyramidal, bough-festooned, laurel-bedecked fruit — dried, fresh, candied, and jellied — on top of which sat the ultimate crown, the ultimate prize: a pineapple. Because not everyone could afford to actually buy so much fruit, there sprang up a brisk street fruit-rental trade, so guests never knew which of the components of the display actually belonged to their hosts and which had been procured temporarily for the occasion.
Pineapples were a symbol of welcome for sailors, as well; they put them out by their front doors to announce that the nautical fellows had returned from sea and were ready to receive guests.
The pineapple belongs to the bromeliad family of plants and has a very unique makeup: In its initial stage, the pineapple plant produces up to two hundred individual flowers, the fruit of which gradually grow and coalesce, over the course of twelve to twenty months, into a spiny, spiky-crowned, well-armored exterior with a golden, luscious, syrupy interior of meltingly fibrous flesh and an intoxicatingly floral perfume.
Each pineapple plant produces only one fruit per year. It can take up to two years for the pineapple to ripen, and it’s important to wait, because once it’s picked, it can’t ripen any further. The unripe pineapple is not only horrible tasting but poisonous. Eating it causes serious throat irritation and diarrhea.
In the twentieth century, the pineapple became synonymous with Hawaii, largely thanks to James Drummond Dole, who started the first plantation on Oahu in 1899, and eventually bought the entire island of Lanai and turned it into a pineapple plantation. In postwar America, the pineapple owed its popularity to the exoticism of tropical lands associated with the soldiers who served in the Pacific, as well as the fruit’s increased availability in supermarkets. Suddenly, the mass production of that once rare, aristocratic delicacy had turned the pineapple into an ubiquitous, fun, easy-to-like, middle-class staple.
Pineapple was canned in various forms — crushed, sliced, and in fruit salads. It was served in Jell-O molds and upside-down cakes. Baked hams were studded with pineapple rings. One curiously retro 1955 recipe, Dole Pineapple Jell-O in a Can, reads in its entirety: “Just pour off liquid from a No. 2 can of Dole Sliced Pineapple. Replace with gelatin (made with half the water in package directions). Chill until set. Run a little hot water on can sides and bottom to loosen. Then cut bottom from can and use to push mold out. Cut between pineapple slices and serve.”
The pig and the pineapple have always been the best of friends. In the islands of Fiji, where cannibalism was rampant and where human flesh was known as “long pig,” beautiful young girls were tenderized for days in fresh water then rubbed with coconut oil, wrapped in kava and lotus leaves, garnished with fruit (most importantly pineapple), and roasted all day in a fire pit.
In more humdrum but socially sanctioned modern-day recipes, pineapple is delectable grilled side by side with pork chops marinated in a sweet-hot sauce. In fact, pineapple juice is a great addition to any pork marinade; its enzyme, bromelain, tenderizes the meat and flavors it with acidic sweetness. And in the famously controversial Hawaiian pizza, the hot, tart-sweet pineapple and salty ham are, in my opinion, perfectly complementary.
In Mexico City, sacks of fermented pineapple juice called tepache are sold on the streets and in the Zócalo, with chunks of ice and straws sticking out. The drink is ice-cold and sweet and funky tasting, and there’s nothing better for quenching thirst on a hot day.
And who can resist the pineapple-based concoction known as the piña colada, with its rum and coconut? Drunk in outdoor swimming-pool tiki bars and cruise-ship lounges all over the earth, it’s the symbol of tropical decadence, the perfect escape. Often served in a coconut half shell and garnished with a tropical flower and a paper umbrella, it’s almost comical and clichéd now, but no less delicious for that.
The pineapple, along with the pinecone, its doppelgänger, is a symbol of fertility, as well as of eternal life. Pineapple and pinecone embellishments and decorations can be found around world, in many different countries, on top of gates, on houses, in churches, and at burial sites. The twinned image represents eternal life and spiritual enlightenment in many religions, including Catholicism: the pope even carries a pinecone at the top of his scepter.
One Christmas Eve in Rome, Brendan and I walked to midnight Mass at Santa Maria in Aracoeli to see the famed Gesú Bambino. It was a warm, wet, windy night. All the old cobblestones were gleaming, the river was wild and rushing, and everything was all lit up. In a tree by the Tiber, thousands of tiny birds crowded the branches, singing. We climbed a mountain of wet, slippery steps to the church and joined a crowd of yuppified, bourgeois Roman families in the pews, all of us awaiting the Bambino. For some reason unbeknownst to us, the white-satin-swathed, cherub-faced Bambino had been substituted with a papal pinecone, so at the end of the oddly cheesy, subdued Mass, when the Gesú Bambino was finally released from his cabinet near the altar and grandly processed about the church, we both started convulsing with giggles, like five-year-olds: He looked exactly like a dark, dried pineapple.