A report by Ken Spencer for the Virginian-Pilot.
If you’ve ever been to Colonial Williamsburg, you may have wondered why the pineapple is such a prominent design element in the architecture and art. During the holiday season, the fruit is particularly conspicuous, found just about everywhere along Duke of Gloucester Street.
Ditto in Colonial towns all along the Eastern Seaboard – Edenton, New Bern, Charleston and Savannah.
What was the big deal with the pineapple in the Colonial day? The story starts a good bit earlier and in another place. The first recorded encounter between the Old World and the pineapple likely occurred in 1493, on Christopher’s Columbus’ second voyage to the Caribbean. Side note: You can thank Columbus for that orange in your stocking, too, as he brought citrus to the New World on this same voyage. In a deserted Carib village, on the island of Guadeloupe, he and his sailors discovered, enjoyed and wrote of their new discovery. The fruit is believed to have originated in the islands off the coasts of Brazil and Paraguay. It was transported to the Caribbean by Carib Indians, who called it “anana” meaning “excellent fruit.” Spaniards saw the resemblance to pine cones and chose to call it “pina.” Much later, when it came time for a proper binomial, Linnaeus named it Ananas cosmosus.
In Columbus’ day, back in the Old World, sweetness was something quite hard and expensive to find. And it was also addictive. Refined sugar from cane was imported from the Middle East or Far East at enormous expense. Fresh fruit was a rare and expensive commodity, with limited seasonal availability. Enter the pineapple. Instantly, it was a gastronomical celebrity and curiosity to royalty and to horticulturists who would be tasked with producing it. But it would be over two centuries before Europeans would master the art of growing them in hothouses. Until the early 1700s, the fruit remained a rare and coveted commodity, reserved for royalty.
Back to the New World. England’s Colonies in America were small towns and settlements where homes were the centers of community life. Visiting was the primary social activity and, thus, the art of hospitality, the way in which guests were greeted and the style in which they were entertained, was an important part of daily life. Dining was a central part of the home’s hospitality. Formal dinners were the way in which a hostess would display her family’s social status. Dinners were extravagant competitions between households trying to one-up the other. Fruits, whether fresh, dried or candied, were a major attraction at the feast. Because of its novelty, expense and attractiveness, the pineapple came to be the crown jewel of these important feasts.
While preserved (candied, glazed, or packed in sugar) pineapples were shipped from the Caribbean Islands, it was a tremendous challenge to get whole pineapples to the major Colonial cities before spoilage. Only with a great deal of luck could a fresh pineapple arrive in Boston or Williamsburg – and only at a considerable expense. Colonial confectioners were known to rent a pineapple by the day, and later that same fruit was sold to a more monied client to eat.
Soon, the pineapple fad spread to decoration, as it became a favorite motif of craftsmen, architects and artists throughout the Colonies. While the Colonial- era fad has cooled, to this day, the pineapple remains a symbol of welcome, hospitality and good cheer. The pineapple is a fascinating fruit – we must revisit it, and its botanical curiosities, again in the New Year.