When you hear the word “pineapple”, what sort of imagery comes to mind? Many people will think of a round slice of pineapple sitting atop a holiday ham, garnished with a cherry. Others will picture enjoying a tropical cocktail from a curvy, elaborate glass, adorned with a miniature umbrella and a small chunk of pineapple hanging from the rim. However, it may surprise the majority of the population that pineapples are not native to the Pacific Islands.
Even though the pineapple is a fairly young fruit in comparison to other produce you might find at your local grocery store, it has established its place in modern cuisine as one of the most versatile fruits on the market today. Pineapples come in many varieties and are used in many dishes including beverages, appetizers, desserts, and even entrees. Countries world-wide utilize this delicious product in their cuisines. Pineapples can be found in Asian, French, Mexican, British, and Spanish dishes, to name a few. Very little is known about the exact origin of the pineapple.
Pineapples are said to originate in South America, somewhere in the vicinity of Brazil. From there, pineapples made their way to the Caribbean by way of Native American trade routes. They were eventually discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 when he landed on the island of Guadeloupe. He and his sailors ventured through an abandoned Caribbean village that was adorned with serpent carvings and pots of cooked human flesh. However, they also stumbled upon piles of freshly gathered fruits and vegetables upon which the sailors feasted and recorded their experience with the curious new segmented pinecone-like fruit they discovered.
Columbus brought this foreign fruit with him back to Spain and shared his newfound adoration for the pineapple. However, it took until the 1720’s for Europeans to perfect a method of growing this exotic product in a hothouse. Until then, pineapples were known as a rare delicacy and were only served at the fanciest occasions. A painting exists of King Charles II of England receiving a pineapple as a gift, evidence that only the wealthiest nobles could afford to enjoy this fruit. Pineapples were available in the American colonies as well, but were also an extremely rare commodity.
Obtaining a fresh pineapple was difficult as transport was slow and most fruits rotted during the trip on the ships. Pineapples were viewed as a status symbol in colonial homes. If a hostess displayed a pineapple in her home during a social gathering, it said a lot about her rank in society. Some stores even went as far as renting pineapples to settlers, later selling the fruit they returned to wealthier customers who then consumed it. Even George Washington agreed. While traveling to Barbados in 1751, he tasted his first pineapple and proclaimed it to be the most delicious fruit he had tasted.
Later, pineapples became a symbol of hospitality. During elaborate events, guests were often presented with large food displays topped with a fresh pineapple. Thus the pineapple became to symbolize high spirits, warmth, affection, and welcoming. As Americans, when we think of pineapples today, our minds conjure up images of Hawaii. However, pineapples did not exist in the Hawaiian islands until Captain James Cook introduced the fruit to the environment in 1779. After planting pineapples and other tropical fruits in Hawaii, he traveled to Tonga, St.
Helena, Easter Island, and the Society Islands to continue his work of spreading exotic produce. His work was revolutionary and would eventually save hundreds of lives. Unfortunately upon his return to Hawaii, Captain James Cook encountered a quarrel with several natives. Sadly, he was killed in a fight that had broken out among them, leaving behind only his pineapple legacy. Captain Cook’s introduction of pineapples would not be appreciated for roughly one hundred years. It can be said that the father of the Hawaiian pineapple was James Dole.
Dole migrated to Hawaii in 1899 to cultivate coffee beans. However, he quickly discovered that coffee was not a profitable trade in the islands. He switched to pineapple production and started the first pineapple plantation in 1901 on the island of Oahu. He began with a mere 60 acres and has since then grown into the most recognized name in pineapple cultivation. Growing pineapples in the early 1900’s resulted in much waste due to the lack of refrigeration during transport, so Dole decided to process the fruit before exporting it in tin cans back to the mainland.
The demand for pineapples grew greatly in the 1920’s, and by then the Dole Plantation was operating on 10,000 acres of land. He had also invested heavily in canning machinery to keep up with the demand. However, by 1932, Dole had lost control of his company and relinquished control to Castle and Cooke, who chose to leave the name of the company unchanged. Dole’s pineapple enterprise was followed shortly by the Del Monte plantation in 1917, also on the island of Oahu, and the Maui Pineapple Company on the island of Maui in 1909.
In 2006, Del Monte announced their withdrawal from pineapple production, leaving only Dole and the Maui Pineapple Company as the main suppliers of Hawaiian pineapples to the United States. However, Hawaiian pineapples only account for roughly 2% of today’s world pineapple supply. The major producers of pineapples now are the Philippines, Thailand, and Costa Rica. Pineapples get their name from their unusual outward appearance. Although they resemble a pinecone on the outside, the flesh is juicy and sweet, tangy, and tart in flavor. Pineapples are part of the bromeliad family along with 1,500 other species of flowering plants.
The flesh of a pineapple contained large amounts of potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, and dietary fiber, as well as an enzyme called bromelain. Bromelain is an acid that breaks down proteins, and is so strong that workers that handle raw pineapple must wear heavy gloves to prevent it from contacting their skin. Not only does bromelain assist in the breakdown of foods, which makes it a nutritional asset to any meal, but it also contains anti-inflammatory properties. Many doctors today recommend diets containing large amounts of pineapple to patients recovering from surgery to assist in the healing process.
As previously mentioned, pineapples are used in many various world cuisines. The most common consumption of this fruit is in its raw state. In many tropical countries, pineapples are cleaned, cut, and sold as snacks at roadside stands and tourist stops. Pineapple juice is a beloved drink on its own, but it is also a very popular ingredient in tropical cocktails, such as the Pina Colada, the Mai Tai, and the Blue Hawaiian. Pineapple chunks are becoming more common as a pizza topping as well, traditionally combined with Canadian bacon or ham.
Using pineapple as a marinade is also quite favored because of the bromelian enzyme that breaks down and tenderizes the protein that soaks in it. It is also for that reason that a dish that combines gelatin and fresh pineapples will not set. Pineapples are also sometimes added to Asian stir-fries to add an element of sweetness. Of course, probably the most well-known pineapple dish is the “Pineapple Upside Down Cake”, a sweet cake that is baked with slices of pineapple at the bottom of the pan, then inverted once cooked to allow the juices and melted butter that the pineapple has been coated with to drip down the sides of the cake.
Pineapples are actually known as an “accessory fruit” or a “multiple fruit” because their flesh consists of small individual fruits that combine to form the whole pineapple fruit that we know. The hexagonal patterns on the shell define each individual fruit that makes up the pineapple. Contrary to what many people believe, pineapples do not grow on trees. The plant itself actually resembles a spiny, agave cactus-like plant. Pineapples are grown by planting the leafy top, or the crown, directly into soil.
At the Dole plantation, workers can plant up to 10,000 pineapple crowns a day. The pineapple is an herbaceous perennial plant, meaning it lives for longer than two years. The first crop takes approximately 18-20 months to mature. All harvesting is done by hand, which requires heavy duty gloves to be worn to protect workers from the sharp leaves of the pineapple plant. It is very important that pineapples are harvested when ripe, as they do not have a ripening stage and no starches convert to sugar once it is removed from the plant.
Pineapples have come a long way from being an exotic, unobtainable fruit to a common household product with a plethora of culinary uses. Thanks to the work of James Dole, pineapples are now not only easily obtained, but also synonymous with his name. Although they are not a symbol of wealth anymore, pineapples are still the symbol for hospitality. Let’s face it: few things are as satisfying as biting into the flesh of a juicy, ripe, succulent slice of fresh pineapple on a hot summer day.