CHATTO £16.99/£15.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
The Pineapple: King of Fruits, by Fran Beauman
Watch out! That fruit's on fire...
Sunday 08 January 2006
In 1947, the government of Australia sent the future Queen Elizabeth a wedding present - 500 cases of canned pineapple. Although it now beggars belief, "the king of fruits" must then have seemed like a classy gift for royalty. Three decades later, writes Fran Beauman, Mike Leigh's play Abigail's Party dealt "perceptions of pineapple chunks a devastating blow" as its hostess from hell tries desperately to impress her neighbours with "dainty" cheese and pineapple on sticks. This rich and lively biography explores how the fruit has constantly been reinvented in response to changing notions of empire and exoticism, style, status and even sexual politics.
The pineapple was discovered in Brazil on Columbus's second voyage of 1493. It proved useful aboard ship as an antidote to scurvy and because its acidic juice could help scrub down the deck. It also soon acquired an exotic image from its strange shape and links with the supposed Edenic innocence of the New World. Charles II served the fruit at a banquet in honour of the French ambassador in 1668 - both because of its rarity value and because it made an implicit statement about English ascendancy in the West Indies. He also commissioned a portrait of himself being presented by the royal gardener with "the first pineapple raised in England". At that moment, argues Beauman, it became a significant symbol of status.
At the heart of her book is a vivid account of how, from about the 1720s, the home-grown fruit became the ultimate country house status symbol - due to the expense and sheer perverse ingenuity required to produce pineapples in England and later in America. Each cost about the price of a new coach and demanded three years of "incredibly hard work for some unfortunate garden boy - stoking the stoves, raking the manure, even sleeping among the plants to make sure they did not burst into flames by mistake".
The book includes a few facile contemporary parallels - was the pineapple really the Prada handbag of its day? - and moments when the pineapple-centric view of the world becomes faintly absurd ("war had historically signified trouble for the home-grown pineapple"). Yet it is stuffed with astonishing, tirelessly researched and skilfully presented information about everything from the design of pineries to Victorian costermongers, from early gardening weeklies to the marketing of Hawaii.
Beauman's claims about the pineapple's significance are well illustrated. The fruit was a key symbol of the privileges of the upper classes for late-18th-century radicals and for Russian revolutionaries. "Pineapple heat" became a standard marking on thermometers. And even in the 1920s a society hostess declared that a really grand dinner required the presence of both a pineapple and Lady Curzon.
Beauman, according to the publisher's website, has a pineapple tattoo. It is a pity she tells us almost nothing about what the fruit means to her, but she makes very clear how its history has reflected changing attitudes to women. In 1702, a monk linked the pineapple with the Virgin Mary through a ridiculous interpretation of the Caribbean word ananas. Charles Lamb in 1821 warned that the fruit, "too ravishing for mortal taste", "woundeth and excoriateth the lips that approach - like lovers' kisses she biteth". An advertisement from the 1930s promises that a wife could make her man "smack his lips in real he-man enjoyment" - by baking him a pineapple pie. The fruit's story turns out to be a gripping tale of sex, (imperial) violence and anxieties about status. It is hard to imagine it better told.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Enrique Iglesias injured trying to catch a drone mid concert
- 2 Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, reveals new look on Annie Leibovitz shot Vanity Fair cover
- 3 Arsenal players boo chief-executive Ivan Gazidis after being told they would not get bonus for FA Cup triumph
- 4 Man on naked bike ride gets ejected after becoming aroused
- 5 UK weather: Temperatures set to soar making parts of Britain hotter than parts of the Mediterranean
The 1975 leave social-media after tweeting cryptic comic strip hinting at break up
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Winner Matisse had secret dog double, says owner Jules O'Dwyer
Top Gear to follow Have I Got News For You format with 'different host for each episode'
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: Ofcom receives 90 complaints about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing dresses'
Ed Sheeran debuts new love song 'Sweet Mary Jane' about relationship with weed
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Why this year's general election was the most unfair in Britain's history