Christopher Columbus “discovered” the pineapple in November immediately after his arrival on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. It was one of the only New World delicacies his men could dependably digest.
Upon their return, word of the pineapple’s bizarre appearance, spectacular taste, and exotic perfume reached the courts of Europe. Soon after, a delicately swaddled and obsessively tended pineapple survived the Atlantic journey long enough to find itself in the hands of a royally commissioned botanist, who planted the pineapple’s crown in a manure-filled pineapple pit and sprouted the first-ever European pineapple émigré.
The pineapple quickly became one of the rarest and costliest foods in Europe. It was so prohibitively expensive to produce, requiring such a lengthy stay in the hothouse (a typical pineapple takes upwards of two years to grow from a planted crown) that for its first 200 years in Europe, the pineapple was reserved almost exclusively for royalty and the gentry, which was occasionally its guest.
King Louis XIV, the Sun King, decorated the solarium at Versailles with pineapple-motif upholstery. The pineapple pits in his gardens were legendary, and he served pineapple, whenever possible, at his banquets.
A pineapple, in actuality or facsimile, became a symbol of hospitality across Europe’s elite, stemming from the cordiality Columbus and his men received from the natives of Guadeloupe, who had rowed out to his ships on subsequent visits, with pineapples in hand, to welcome them.
Next time you’re at the bar, look at the red cap on a bottle of Tanqueray gin. You’ll find that the image of a pineapple had become very important in Europe by the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837.
By then, another bizarre and splendid thing had taken root in Western Europe—a thriving middle class. As new industries spawned new professions, the wholly modern phenomenon of upward mobility and social aspiration became a full-time job in Victorian households.
High-end department stores, like Fortnum & Mason, fulfilled middle-class aspirations to the gentry with confections such as jellied fruits of Asia and the Caribbean, fried pineapple fritters served on a paper doily and, on occasion, small pineapples that had been candied in their entirety. Middle-class families would pay for these pineapple-related extravagances to serve to their friends or display as centerpieces during dinner parties, to intimate that they had arrived, in a sense.
The pineapple market crashed, however, with the advent of canning (a French invention of the early 1820s). Suddenly the issues that had plagued the transport of pineapple were eliminated. Pineapples could be chopped up and canned—either in glass jars or tin cans—in their Caribbean fields. They could survive indefinite travel and extreme heat or cold in their oxygen-free cage.
The price of pineapple, in its then new, but now familiar, canned form, plummeted. No longer extravagantly expensive, pineapple was now available for a penny-a-poke, one piece at a time, to working-class Londoners.
What was a socially mobile, snootily aspirational, middle-class professional to do?
They’d spent decades perfecting pineapple confectionary, pineapple suppers, and pineapple centerpieces specifically to show off something poor people couldn’t get. Now on every trip to Fortnum & Mason, they’d have to step around some cockney urchin munching on a piece of pineapple, this grand fruit of kings, just inches from the gutter! Unconscionable!
Luckily, the proprietors of places like Fortnum & Mason in London had a solution—they packaged into shapely glass jars with decorative labels the same fruit, from the same islands, as what was pouring into England’s ports in “tinnies.” They sold the jarred fruit to the Victorian middle class for more than twice the price working-class Londoners would pay on the docks.
And so, the pineapple in Victorian England became the prototype for thousands of foods and food trends and restaurants since. The middle class, in an attempt to distance itself from the working class, pays twice as much for the same product in order to feel more like the upper class.
Meanwhile, the upper class had already moved on to finer tastes and the emerging merchant class, the people dumping pineapple chunks from a can into a jar, then jacking up the price, quietly gained economic advantage.
The history of the pineapple is capitalism at its best—for a price, everyone gets to feel exactly how he or she wants to feel, but the product never has to change.