A Brief History of Foods: Pineapple
The pineapple (Latin: Ananas comosus)  is a tropical plant with an edible fruit indigenous to South America, where it has been cultivated for many centuries. The introduction of the pineapple to Europe in the 17th-century made it a significant cultural icon of luxury. Since the 1820s, pineapple has been commercially grown in greenhouses and many tropical plantations.
The wild plant is native to southern Brazil and Paraguay, especially the Paraná-Paraguay River area where wild relatives occur (Morton, 1987, 18-28). Little is known about its domestication, but it spread as a crop throughout South America. Archaeological evidence of cultivation/use has been found dating to 1200 - 800 BC in Peru and 200 BC - AD 700 in Mexico, where it was cultivated by the Mayas and the Aztecs. By the late 1400s, cropped pineapple was widely distributed and a stable component of the diet of Meso- Americans (Morton, op. cit.).
Europe’s obsession The first European to encounter the pineapple was Columbus, in Guadeloupe on November 4th, 1493 and again in Panama in 1502. He took the plant back to Spain introducing it as piña de Indes, meaning ‘pine of the Indians’. Eventually, in the 17th-century, the fruit was named pineapple in English because its appearance was reminiscent of the pinecone. The pineapple fascinated Europeans, but it was not successfully cultivated in Europe until Pieter de la Court developed greenhouse horticulture near Leiden sometime around 1658. Before then Europeans had to rely on the extremely expensive option of directly importing pineapples. De la Court’s innovation allowed the fruits to be home-grown but the equipment and labour required to grow them in a temperate climate in greenhouses called ‘pineries’ remained enormous. Thus, pineapples became a symbol of wealth. They were such a rare, desirable item that the scaly, sweet fruit was too valuable to eat - a single pineapple was worth thousands of pounds and often the same one would be paraded from event to event, dinner party to dinner party until it eventually went rotten. In time a ‘roaring trade in pineapple rental developed, where ambitious but less well-off folk might hire one for a special event, dinner party or even just to jauntily tuck under an arm on a show-off stroll’ (Bell, 2020). Even in the architecture of the time, pineapples became decorative elements symbolizing hospitality. They can still be seen as finials on railings, in gardens and adorning gate pillars in Britain today.
Pineapple plants were distributed from the Netherlands to English gardeners in 1719 and to the French a year later. In England, the first pineapple was grown at Dorney Court in Buckinghamshire, and a huge ‘pineapple stove’ to heat the plants was built at the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1723. While in France, King Louis XV was presented with a pineapple that had been grown at Versailles in 1733, and in Russia, Catherine the Great ate pineapples grown on her own estates before 1796.
Pineapples do not want to be eaten! The fruit is a collection of flowers, each with its own eye fused around a central core, which takes a staggering three years to mature (Shubrook, 2022). The flesh and juice of the pineapple are used in cuisines around the world. In many tropical countries, pineapple is prepared and sold on roadsides as a snack, perhaps whole or in halves with a stick inserted. Whole, cored slices with a cherry in the middle are a common garnish on hams in the West. Chunks of pineapple are used in desserts such as fruit salad, as well as in some savoury dishes, including pizza toppings, or as a grilled ring on a hamburger. Crushed pineapple is used in yogurt, jam, sweets, and ice cream. The juice of the pineapple is served as a beverage, and it is also the main ingredient in cocktails such as the piña colada and in the drink tepache
Despite its widespread use it is clear that pineapples do not want to be eaten. With a tuft of spiky green leaves on top, the fruit’s iconic shape is formed by a tough, segmented outer skin whose spiky or scaly bumps are called ‘eyes’. If you can slice open this ‘armoured’ skin, you'll find bright yellow flesh that is both sweet and tart. But wait.
Right after you eat fresh pineapple you may have an itchy tongue or sore lips. This is because it contains bromelain an enzyme extract derived from the plant’s stem, although it exists in all parts of the fresh pineapple. Bromelain is very useful as a meat tenderiser as it breaks down proteins. For this reason, if you place a segment of fresh pineapple between your gum line and lip you may feel the action of bromelain as it begins to tenderise - ‘eat away’ - at your flesh. It is a strange feeling but not one to worry about unduly because as soon as you swallow the fruit, your stomach acids destroy the ‘flesh-eating’ enzyme (Booth, 2020). Yet, with its ‘armoured skin’ and ‘flesh-eating enzyme’, pineapples are giving you every clue that they do not want to be eaten. Bon appétit!
Bell, B., (2020), ‘The rise, fall, and rise of the status pineapple’, BBC News, available online: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-53432877 (accessed April 6th, 2022).
Booth, S., (2020), ‘Health Benefits of Pineapple’, available online: https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/benefits-pineapple (accessed February 12th, 2022).
Morton, J., (1987), ‘Pineapple’, in ‘Fruits of warm climates’, Florida: Miami, available online: https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/pineapple.html (accessed April 18th, 2022).
Shubrook, N., (2022), ‘The health benefits of pineapple’, BBC Good Food, available online: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-pineapple (accessed February 12th, 2022).
1. Comosus means 'tufted' in reference to the stem of the plant.