Among all foods, can a pineapple with its natural crown be considered royalty? They may be commonplace today, but there was a time in the 18th century when the landed gentry certainly thought so. But why were they so expensive?
Food and exotic ingredients have always held a fascination. Food is needed by everyone, from the poor to the rich. And for the rich, food is often used as a sign of hospitality, a symbol of respect and status. Exotic fruits and vegetables and multi-cultural dishes served at banquets and feasts automatically become a sign of power and position in high society.
The fascination with exotic fruits and vegetables has been around for a long time. The Greeks and the Romans had their own scarce ingredients and the generosity with which these were given to guests was a sign of power, status, and wealth. And so it was with the 18th century and pineapples.
This sweet, tangy tropical fruit is perhaps most visible today for the controversy as to whether it should be included on pizza or not (it should). This speaks of the easy availability of the fruit, but this was not always the case.
A Symbolic Fruit
The pineapple has been associated with many meanings and messages over the years. In many cultures worldwide, the pineapple is seen as a sign of welcome and hospitality provided to guests. In many cultures, the fruit is kept at the doorway to welcome guests and show that they are free to enter.
In other cultures, the fruit can symbolize the feminine spirit, fertility, and abundance. No wonder the fruit became a sign of status and wealth in 18th century England. With its native roots in the South American countries of Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, the fruit gained a reputation as something special, particularly in England.
In the 18th century, the pineapple fruit was brought by European sailors home as a sign of successful expedition and evidence of their prosperity. It also became a decorative piece on upper-class dining tables. When you saw a pineapple on the dining table of a home, you would assume that the family had traveled places and were either explorers or merchants who had a lot of money to afford the exotic fruit.
From public places like garden parties to lavish dinners, different places would have fruit as decoration and food. To have a pineapple on your plate, a fruit that has travelled halfway around the world and is still fresh, spoke to Europeans as strong expressions of wealth and power.
In 18th century England, the pineapple could therefore cost thousands of pounds. Only the wealthy and noble families of England could afford the fruit. The fruit would be bought, and every part of it would be used, either as food or as a display showpiece. The fruit would often be put on public display after buying it till it was rotten to the core.
The pineapple was such a strong symbol of wealth and abundance that the well-off families often rented a pineapple for a certain occasion instead of buying them at such short notice. The pineapple was so popular as a sign of luxury and wealth that it made its way into idioms and commonly used dialects.
People would often say something was akin to “a pineapple of the finest flavor” to refer to anything that was very luxurious and high quality. And around the 1770s, the pineapple would often appear as a cultural reference in English literature and art, shorthand for power and wealth.
The Appeal of the Exotic?
The simple reason why pineapple was seen as a status symbol and sign of wealth lies in the culture of that time. At that time, people were newly exploring distant places, and it was not easy to reach them.
Only the wealthy and determined could finance a sea exploration to distant lands and bring back exotic riches and foods. Pineapple, at that time, therefore said something about your character: either you were a dashing adventurer, or rich enough to pay someone to do the dangerous part for you.
In the 16th and 17th centuries the pineapple, so very different from anything European that their closest guess was “apple”, was the prime exotic food that Spanish and English explorers brought back from the New World. Therefore, it caught the attention and fascination of the majority of the wealthy population.
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The exotic and very different appearance of the pineapple from other known fruits may have played a part in its glorification as a fruit of wealth and royalty. Its natural crown and golden yellow color gave it an appearance like the king, and so it became associated with royalty and luxury.
The fruit was so associated with kings that it was also given a befitting name of “king pine”, a name that even kings approved of. Thus, it made its way to the dining halls of kings and noblemen.
The weird appearance and the unexpected flavors of the pineapple amazed the English. The English felt that the pineapple tasted like rosewater, sugar, and wine, all at the same time. The pineapples were so famous that the English even eventually found a way to grow them on home soil.
However, even when pineapples were freshly grown and available in Britain, the demand and value of pineapples did not go down. If anything, it only affirmed the luxurious symbol of pineapples. The apparatus to grow a domestic pineapple was also not cheap, ensuring they retained their exotic reputation as status symbols.
With only the most wealthy people able to afford the specialist staff and hot house conditions for pineapples, only a few of the wealthiest families could afford to fund their upkeep in British conditions. Therefore, the pineapple continued to enjoy its status as the king of fruits on the British dining table.
The pineapple was difficult to cultivate in England, and only the wealthy could afford it. Even when they did cultivate it in England, not every pineapple farm produced the fruit. It was only with industrialization and rapid import of pineapples with steamships that the value of the fruit was finally reduced, and the rest of England could find out what the fuss was about.
Throughout the history of food, different fruits have held different positions. Some fruits have been the powerhouse of nutrition for the poor, while some fruits like the pineapple have been the indulgence of the rich. Pineapples may be everywhere today, but once only the wealthy would ever know what they tasted like. Although not, perhaps, on pizza.
Top Image: Royal gardener John Rose presents King Charles II with a pineapple. Source: Hendrick Danckerts / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri
Bell, B, 2020. The rise, fall, and rise of the status pineapple. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-53432877
Innocent, R, 2022. Pineapple Symbolism: The Meaning of Pineapples. Available at: https://sodaliteminds.com/pineapple-symbolism/?msclkid=caa4e22bcdc811eca9bcdbfb00817e70
MacEwan, T, 2022. King Pine, The Pineapple. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/King-Pineapple/?msclkid=caa51d9bcdc811eca6e290a72ae4e131