Eating the Past

The Many Sides of the Pineapple

The pineapple has appeared recently in two popular TV series – in the final episode of the first series of The White Lotus (2021), as the name of the suite which is both coveted by one guest and the site of the murder of Armand, the hotel manager, and as the juice which causes an allergic reaction and kills a character in the murder-mystery The Glass Onion (2022). The choice of the pineapple rather than, say, the mango suite or orange juice, is linked to a longer history of the pliability of the pineapple as a motif, onto which writers, artists, even scientists, attach and project an extraordinary range of different and special meanings. These recent examples also allude to its darker history.

The ‘discovery’ of the pineapple on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus to Guadeloupe is recounted by a merchant, Michele de Cuneo, from Genoa in one of his 1495 letters home. Here begins a history of linguistic and visual hyperbole as well as confusion around a fruit which, although ‘everyday’ to the Caribs who introduced the fruit to the Italian voyagers, became a code for the ‘exotic’ for Europeans in the early modern period and beyond.

Domesticated and cultivated for hundreds of years in South America before the arrival of Columbus, the pineapple in European eyes and imaginations was a fruit whose taste and smell became associated variously with honey, wine, and rose-water, and its shape confused with the artichoke and the pine-cone. This projection and confusion arose because very few people were able to taste a pineapple until its cultivation at great expense in European greenhouses from the seventeenth century and, in what were later known as pineries from the eighteenth century. Individual pineapples were so valued that one Anglo-Dutch grower, Sir Matthew Decker, dedicated a portrait to a single pineapple grown in his gardens in Richmond, in 1720. However, their scarcity in the eighteenth century meant that remained a kind of ‘blank sheet’ onto which ideas of the ‘exotic’ were projected and proliferated.

Illustration by Terme Moharrer, Illustration BA student, Camberwell College of Arts.
Illustration by Terme Moharrer, Illustration BA student, Camberwell College of Arts.

This first ‘encounter’ of the late 15th century appears again and again in popular and academic histories of the pineapple, plucked from a broader story of colonial violence and expropriation in which it occurred, and also, most significantly, separated from the rest of the contents of this letter. Only a few pages earlier, the merchant describes the violent rape of a Carib woman on Columbus’ ship, who concludes this passage with her submission, suggesting she had been ‘trained in a school of harlots’. The absence of this earlier and disturbing passage in histories of the pineapple is perplexing. Certainly, it is ‘bad history’ to pluck a passage out of a text without reading it in full, but let us imagine that our historians did read the whole letter and yet were drawn to the more attractive or compelling celebration of this ‘exotic’ fruit which dominates most histories.

In fact, representations of the pineapple quickly appeared in eyewitness accounts of the ‘New World’, such as John White’s 1585 careful and evocative drawing of ‘The Pyne Frute’, which appeared in paper, print, and oil, and then continued to inspire artists into the early modern period, whether they had seen an actual fruit or not. The pineapple became associated with royalty, such as in this famous image of the royal gardener presenting a pineapple to Charles II  from 1677, and was also combined with the ideas of the ‘exotic’, such as in this French-made tapestry from 1705 depicting the Emperor of China overseeing a pineapple harvest (in which a banana tree also appears in the background). The cultivation of the fruit around the globe, partly because of the ease of its transplantation in temperate climates, matched the speed at which the motif picked up different meanings into the modern period.

One of these meanings linked the pineapple to female sexuality, which is not unsurprising since, from antiquity, a range of fruits – such as the pomegranate, fig, mango, or apple – was also associated with fertility and female anatomy. However, the pineapple became increasingly linked to ‘exotic’ women. There are many examples of this elision of ‘exoticism’ and female sexuality, especially in relation to indigenous and enslaved women from the early modern period, including this striking and disturbing 1786 portrait of a fifteen-year hold Haitian girl, likely to have been the slave of the artist’s wife in Montréal, her nipple juxtaposed and exposed against a plate of tropical fruit including a pineapple. The specificity of this elision, often with racialist overtones, reaches into the modern period with film stars such as the Portuguese-born Brazilian Carmen Miranda who represented the Afro-Brazilian culture of Carnival to American audiences.

But Miranda had more than pineapples on her head – well-known dance routines such as ‘Chica Chica Boom Chic’ from 1941 Hollywood film, That night in Rio, in which pineapple crowns are sticking out of her head, were followed by her performance as ‘The Lady in the Tutti Frutti hat’ from the 1943 film, The Gang’s all Here, in which bananas are the thematic fruit. So, one question is how do specific meanings get attached to certain kinds of exotic fruit, and why the pineapple and not the banana? The late feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin, explored this question in her well-known 1973 study of eroticism and the body, juxtaposing a nineteenth-century French photograph of a nude woman holding a plate of apples with a recreation of that scene, using a nude male model who asks the viewer to ‘Buy my bananas’. The result is far from erotic.

Illustration by Terme Moharrer, Illustration BA student, Camberwell College of Arts.
Illustration by Terme Moharrer, Illustration BA student, Camberwell College of Arts.

Certainly, the shape and look of the pineapple attracted attention, partly because if its similarity to other known fruits and vegetables, but also because of the shooting ‘crown’ at its top and the pattern of the fruitlets or eyes spiralling around the surface of the fruit, recognised later as following the Fibonacci sequence. The silhouette of the pineapple became instantly recognisable, such as in this pen and ink drawing of a birthday party from c. 1785, in which the crown of the pineapple mimics the flounces and feathers of the ladies’ hats. However, in the same period, ranges of tea and coffeeware, such as this pineapple contorted into the shape of a ceramic teapot from mid 18th-century Staffordshire, mimicked the pineapple’s colours, surface, and crown, but lost its iconic shape in the process. The pineapple, therefore, found its ways in different forms and formats in European culture, without losing its power and resonance as a symbol, even if these iterations were disconnected from the earliest ‘encounter’ and its Carib origins.

The reason for the scarcity – and, in turn, desirability – of the pineapple on European tables in the early modern period was that it travelled badly. Reports of the arrival of rotten fruit after an Atlantic voyage were renowned and, therefore, the fruit’s vulnerability meant that pineapple had to be consumed in other forms. Pineapple-shaped moulds allowed diners to eat ice cream in the shape of a pineapple, even if it was not made from the actual fruit, as in this recreation by food historian Ivan Day. In the Caribbean, pineapple could be dried and sugared as candied pineapple or distilled with sugar as pineapple rum and imported to Europe. And, while recipes for pineapple tart and jam appeared in Richard Bradley’s The Country Housewife of 1736, these were more fantasy than reality for most British readers, just as the recipes for tortoise or sea-turtle in the pages which followed.

The powerful resonance of the pineapple as both fruit and motif in the early modern period is undeniable and distinctive, even if most people in Europe experienced the pineapple as a motif, or maybe in dried, sugared, or liquid versions, far from the fresh pineapple eaten by de Cuneo on Columbus’ ship. And, while we cannot recover its original meaning to the Caribs who offered the fruit to the Europeans, we can retrace the many-sided meanings of the pineapple, including its darker origins and iterations. The sale of pineapples in British supermarkets today at just £1 reminds us that its status as an everyday food is not without controversy.

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