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23 february 2014

In 1493, Christopher Columbus's expedition became the first Europeans to taste pineapple. They liked it and took one back for King Ferdinand to sample. Ferdinand pronounced it superior to all other fruits, but as Kaori O'Connor puts it, "as he had just eaten the only one in Europe, satisfying his future requirements was going to be problematic" (18).

Over and again in her entertaining, energetic global history of the fruit, O'Connor shows how it's more than just a uniquely delicious sweet-tart dessert. The pineapple is a problem in transportation, cultivation, preservation, and social relations – to an extent perhaps not even matched by the banana, and certainly not by New World natives like the potato and the chili pepper.

Unlike any other New World commodity, the pineapple became a potent symbol in Western European iconography. It stands, to this day, for hospitality and gracious living; a bit earlier, it exuded pure prestige. In an age when you can walk into any supermarket and grab a fresh one, it seems faintly ridiculous to see stone or bronze pineapples surmounting the entrances to aristocratic estates. But 300 years ago, the ability to produce fresh pineapple was one of the keenest class separators in Europe.

Pineapples won't grow even in Spain, but the Dutch, ever ingenious, found ways of propagating them in greenhouses. By the 18th century, royal and aristocratic pinehouses were obligatory if you wanted to keep up with the Bourbons in the matter of dessert. So exclusive was access to the fruit that it became a kind of philosophical puzzle for the likes of Locke and Hume: how do you describe the taste of pineapple if you've never tasted it, indeed can never to aspire to tasting it?

Pineapple, O'Connor shows, became so prestigious as the 19th century developed that a huge amount of effort was directed toward making it widely available: steamship transport, canneries, the transformation of Hawaii into a pineapple plantation. Suddenly the stuff was everywhere, and the upper crust became somewhat chagrined to see their favorite status fruit transformed into decorations for canned ham, or the topside of upside down cakes.

Pineapple doesn't have recipes quite as good as those in some of the other Reaktion Edible books. The main contemporary recipe O'Connor includes is a generic sweet-and-sour pork doubtless invented in a restaurant in Philadelphia. But she gives the names of some other tempting dishes that bear some Googling: Mexican mancha manteles de cerdo, simple Jamaican jerk (pineapple juice and allspice), Filipino Pininyahang Manok, Tahitian poisson cru ananas, and a Nonya dish from Southeast Asia called Udang Masak Lemak Nenas. O'Connor prints a 17th-century recipe from Peru that involves coring a pineapple and processing the flesh from the core with almonds, raisins, sugar, and cinnamon before restuffing it. Actually the Peruvian recipe goes on to candy the entire assembly, making a three-pound sugar bomb of it, but the sweet mole on its own sounds worth trying.

O'Connor includes quite a few drink recipes, but I've recorded elsewhere my opinion of mixed drinks, and the inclusion of pineapple juice just makes things worse, IMHO. One of the most revolting of Humbert Humbert's predilections, in Nabokov's Lolita, is his fondness for gin with pineapple juice.

O'Connor, Kaori. Pineapple: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2013.