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April, 2012

Almost a Pineapples and Stripes Flag!
By Dennis Linden

Pineapple’s original heritage has been tracked to the interior of Brazil; what Columbus had found was the result of the trade between the continent and these islands.

Pineapples

What an interesting fruit variety in appearance, taste and history! The word “pineapple” was first used in 1398 by the English to describe what is today called a pine cone before anyone in the Western World knew about the fruit. Makes sense in that the cone is the “fruit” of conifer trees. None other than Christopher Columbus was the first European to come across the actual fruit in November of 1493 during his first Caribbean cruise. After tasting it, he did not tinker with its aptly descriptive Indian name of "anana” meaning “excellent fruit", which apparently matched Chris’s sentiments exactly.

The interior pulp was a favorite hand fruit of the indigenous tribes that Columbus met, especially during celebration feasts, as they had also figured out how to turn the fruit’s sugary juice into wine. Pineapple’s original heritage has been tracked to the interior of Brazil; what Columbus had found was the result of the trade between the continent and these islands. While Columbus referred to the native population as savages, I submit that engaging in international commerce, cultivating a crop and, more importantly, having an appreciation for wine gives evidence to the contrary!

It took another few hundred years, 1664 to be exact, before the word appears on record as describing what the world now considers the iconic symbol for all things tropical. Thirty years later, the term “pine cone” was first linked to the evergreen tree; leaving pineapple to bask in the sun as the singular moniker for the luscious fruit that we equate with white sand beaches. Since it needs a tropical climate, in Europe the pineapple remained a rare delicacy reserved for the rich and royal right into the 19th Century.

Interestingly, for colonial Americans, the pineapple became ingrained early in this country’s culture, both symbolically and visibly. Ships brought in preserved pineapples from Caribbean islands as sweetmeats--pineapple chunks candied, glazed and packed in sugar. The actual whole fruit was very difficult to obtain and extremely expensive.

Pineapples

It was early American foodies who began to use the fruit as a centerpiece at social festivities to signal the very special occasion status of an event. Gradually, the image of the pineapple evolved into a symbol of hospitality. There was a tradition whereby American ship captains would display a pineapple or top of a pineapple on the porch of their houses to announce the arrival home after a long voyage. A guest might bring a pineapple to a dinner party in those days like the modern day tradition of presenting the host with a bottle of wine.

It is not surprising that all this symbolism transferred into a favorite motif of architects, artisans and craftsmen throughout the colonies. A mansion was very often adorned with carved wood or molded mortar pineapples on its main gate posts. Public buildings were crowned with huge copper and brass pineapple weather vanes. Pineapples were sculpted into door lintels; stenciled on wallpaper, woven into tablecloths, napkins, carpets and draperies. A pineapple carved on the back of chair or feet of a piece of early American cabinetry is a great hint as to its age. It is amazing that our flag does not reflect these pineapple-centric times; chances are Ms. Ross was sitting in a chair decorated with the fruit when she sewed up the stars and stripes forever.

Though the pineapple has long been the de facto symbol of Hawaii, it was not introduced to the islands until 1790, when Captain James Cook brought it to Hawaii long after the fruit was known throughout Europe. It was another 100 years before commercial production had reached notable volume in the 1880s. Even today, Hawaii produces only ten percent of the world's pineapple crop, yet completely owns it as its iconic symbol. Mexico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica make up the bulk of the commercial crop distributed globally.

An odd factoid: it would be a fruitless (no pun intended) scavenger hunt to try to find a hummingbird in Hawaii. Pollination is required for a pineapple to form seeds; the presence of seeds negatively affects the quality of the fruit bound for the marketplace. The most common pollinator of the pineapple in the wild is the hummingbird. Because of the industry’s importance to the Hawaiian economy, the importation of hummingbirds is prohibited in the state. Growers of commercial crops replace natural pollination with an ethylene gas spray that stimulates fruit development without seeds.

Pineapples are all pulp, sugar and water. The lack of starch content means that pineapples will not ripen after they have been picked. A ripe pineapple will have yellow breaking through its base, indicating that the fruit’s sugar content has developed enough for consumption. Needless to say, harvesting pineapples at just the right time is a produce industry science unto itself.

Though a culinary favorite in desserts and side dishes (see this month’s Cookin’ with the Kids feature) there is one characteristic that will forever deprive the world of real pineapple Jell-O. Fresh pineapple contains an enzyme called bromelain that will prevent gelatin from setting and cause dairy products to curdle. Shockingly true, it’s been pineapple flavored all this time! On the other hand, the enzyme resembles gastric acids, so is good for digestion. Bromelain’s chemical properties plus the fruit’s sweet-tart flavor, make the pineapple a two-for-one culinary aid as both a marinade and meat tenderizer. That’s a fair trade off; besides, there are plenty of other fruits to choose from to satisfy those Jello-O cravings.