When winter is cruel, as it’s been this year in many parts of the country, our collective craving for the warmth of the sun is like the toll of a village bell, deep and visceral. Our mad quest for solar-heated solace will lead a lucky few to the tropics, but for the rest of us chilly chumps, I’ve got one word: pineapple. Think about it: Its flesh is the color of the sun. It thrives in all the tropical spots where you’d love to be listening to the sashaying of palm trees, so by slurping on juicy chunks of pineapple, you’re doing the gustatory equivalent of armchair travel. It’s a deliciously cheap thrill, complete with Vitamin C. For a half hour, you’re not in winter anymore, Dorothy. Read on and get ready to lick those chops.
A Brief History
Well before Christopher Columbus had his first taste of pineapple on Guadalupe in 1493, indigenous tribes were enjoying the fruit in the wild, likely in an area bordering Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. The Tupi people of Brazil called it nana or anana, which means “excellent fruit.”
Smitten by this new culinary delight, Columbus brought pineapples back to Spain to present to Queen Isabella. It marked the beginning of a long period of pineapple infatuation that spread throughout Europe. The royal botanist to King Charles I described the pineapple in 1640, before it even arrived in England:
Scaly like an Artichoke at the first view, but more like to a cone of the Pine tree, which we call a pineapple for the forme... being so sweete in smell... tasting... as if Wine, Rosewater and Sugar were mixed together. (Theatrum Botanicum)
By the 1520s, the Portuguese, which traded with Brazil, may have dabbled in pineapple plantings, but many historians believe that the Dutch were the first to get it right, procuring seeds from the Caribbean via the Dutch West Indies Company.
The Brits, particularly enthusiastic to get their hands on the prized fruit, were responsible for dubbing it the “pineapple,” a 17th century word believed to be inspired by the fruit’s resemblance to a pinecone. (The use of the word “apple” was used generically for any kind of fruit.)
A famous painting (circa 1670s) of a royal gardener presenting King Charles II with a pineapple led people to believe that the fruit was first cultivated in England. It was not, but the English were steadfast in their passion for it, and by the mid-18th century, enthusiasts were building glass hot houses for pineapple production in one of the least tropical places on earth. At Tatton Park, one of the country’s most celebrated “pinery vineries” of the era, a pineapple commanded a luxury price, equivalent to 5,000 pounds today. (In 2012, the newly restored Tatton Park had its first harvest in more than a century.)
Pineapple love extended to the other side of the pond, too. American colonists imported pineapples from the Caribbean and considered it a symbol of hospitality, a tradition borrowed from the Carib people. To this day, the pineapple is a cultural symbol in the American south, particularly in Charleston, SC, where they appear both inside and outside the home. When hung over the front door, a pineapple was a sign that the man of the house was at home from sea and welcoming visitors.
By the late 1700s, the pineapple arrived on Hawaiian shores, likely due to the efforts of Captain James Cook. Locals referred to it as halakahiki, or “foreign fruit.” It would be another hundred years before this foreign fruit would become synonymous with Hawaii. In 1899, James Dole, newly graduated from Harvard, came to Hawaii and began growing pineapple. A cousin of Sanford Dole, the first governor of the territory of Hawaii, James Dole started the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901. By 1911, 95 percent of all Hawaiian pineapples were canned and shipped to the mainland. By 1921, pineapple had taken over as Hawaii’s leading crop and industry. In 1922, Dole bought the island of Lanai’i solely for pineapple production. And by 1925, pineapple was a household word, the result of a pineapple recipe contest sponsored by the company.
Until the 1960s, Hawaii produced three-fourths of the world’s pineapple harvest. By 2002, its global share was just 10 percent; within the past few years, the market share has shrunk to less than one percent. In 1993, Dole closed its Honolulu cannery. In 2008, Del Monte harvested its last Hawaiian pineapple crop, leaving just Haili’imaile Pineapple Co. (under the Maui Gold brand) and Dole to represent Hawaii-grown pineapple. It’s unclear just how much pineapple Dole is producing these days, as its Oahu plantation has become a major tourist destination with amusement park attractions.
- In the Philippines and Malaysia, there is a long tradition of using the fiber from pineapple leaves to turn into sewing thread and string to make clothing, fishing nets and furniture.
- In 16th and 17th century literature, the word “pineapple” was used as a superlative. The very pineapple of politeness is a line from “The Rivals,” a 1775 play by Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
- In “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit,” Charles Dickens explores the racy side of the word: He looked up in spite of himself directly; and having once looked up, there was no looking down again; for of all the tight, plump, buxom, bright-eyed, dimple-faced landladies that ever shone on earth, there stood before him then, bodily in that bar, the very pink and pineapple.
- In his journal, a young adult George Washington wrote of his fondness for the pineapple, which he first tried in Barbados. When living on his estate at Mount Vernon, he’d request “pine apples” from sea captains traveling to and from the West Indies.
- In the central Scotland town of Dunmore, there is a famous 18th century structure called the Pineapple Summerhouse, commissioned by John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore. With a stone roof in the shape of a pineapple, the pavilion was believed to have been built between 1761 and 1776. (Murray left England in 1770 to become governor of the colony of Virginia). Now under the auspices of the Landmark Trust of Scotland, the Pineapple has been restored in recent decades and is now rented out to tourists for overnight stays.
- By the 1960s, pineapple upside-down cake had become an iconic American dessert. In its 1960 edition of “Dessert Cookbook,” Better Homes and Gardens refers to pineapple upside-down cake as “tops on everybody’s list.” The recipe calls for “1 No. 2 can pineapple tidbits or crushed pineapple” with a heaping handful of maraschino cherries.
- The cartoon character SpongeBob Squarepants lives inside a pineapple under the sea.
Botanically speaking, the pineapple is known as Anana comosus. Although it eats like a fruit, the pineapple is not a member of a fruit family; instead, it’s a bromeliad, an extensive family of non-edible flowering plants with fleshy leaves. It does not grow on trees, but on a bushy plant low to the ground. Each plant bears just one pineapple, which takes about two years to grow to maturity. It grows not as a single fruit, but as a web of hundreds of flower-like “fruitlets,” which swell with juice and pulp from the core, forming one complete entity. Each pineapple “eye” represents one fruitlet. Given how the pineapple grows, it makes sense that the fruit closest to the skin is sweeter than what’s at the core.
Unlike its wild ancestor, cultivated pineapple is seedless, which means its life cycle begins and ends with its signature crown of spiky leaves, from which sprouts grow.
Meanwhile, Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines and Costa Rica have become the world’s pineapple producers, representing about half of the global market share.
Although available year-round, pineapples from the Western Hemisphere are at their peak from March thru June. You may notice that supermarket produce sections are better stocked at this time and offer sales.
Unless you live in Hawaii, southern Florida or Puerto Rico, there’s no such thing as local pineapple for most American pineapple lovers. And as we learned earlier, Hawaii dominated world pineapple production for most of the 20th century, but has since been dwarfed by Costa Rica, particularly for the US market.
In the last decade, pineapple production has skyrocketed in Costa Rica, making it that country’s number two export after coffee. Between 2000 and 2010, acreage for pineapple farms in Costa Rica increased by 300 percent. In its mad pursuit of capturing the European and American markets, Costa Rican pineapple plantations have chosen industrial scale farming methods, resulting in monocultures, like soybeans or corn here in the US. The sudden shift to intensive farming has raised many environmental concerns, including soil erosion, deforestation and pesticide residues. In 2010, the Guardian investigated these concerns, as well as the conditions of plantation workers, many of whom are migrant workers from Nicaragua. (The accompanying video is particularly compelling.)
In 2011, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) launched an initiative to investigate both environmental impact and workers rights conditions on Costa Rica pineapple plantations.
Last year, the Costa Rican government acknowledged that traces of Bromacil, a weed killer used on pineapple crops (and a possible human carcinogen), has leached into groundwater and is showing up in neighboring water supplies. The public discovery prompted a decree to restrict its use.
Meanwhile, Whole Foods Market in 2010 rolled out its Whole Trade Pineapple program. In partnership with the Rain Forest Alliance and TransFair USA, Whole Foods carries both Fair Trade organic and conventional pineapples from Costa Rica.
Although you can find organic Hawaiian-grown pineapple, much of it is processed into cans.
Given the environmental challenges for pineapple in recent years, we recommend taking the Environmental Working Group’s recommendation with a grain of salt. In its 2013 Shopper’s Guide to Produce, pineapple received a rank of #49 out of 51 produce items, earning a spot on its “Clean Fifteen” list. See our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below.*
In addition to its signature tuft of spiky leaves and alligator-like skin, the pineapples you’re likely to find at the supermarket will sport a coat of grass green, with splashes of reddish, yellow, orange and ivory, depending on the variety. The flesh comes in various shades of yellow, from pale popcorn to egg yolk. Unless you know someone who grows backyard pineapples, you’ll have to travel outside of the US to feast on the super-sweet miniature pineapples.
What to look for
For ripeness, inspect the base of the fruit and take a big whiff. Its perfume should be sweet, not fermented. Take a pass on fruit with moldy spots or signs of its impending arrival. When pressed with your thumb, a ready-to-eat pineapple should give a little. Some pineapple lovers (including this one) tug on a leaf from the crown and argue that if it yields easily, the fruit is ready for the table. Others say not so fast. Regardless of where you stand, leaves should be pert and green, not dried out and brown.
One cup of raw pineapple offers more than the daily recommended amount of Vitamin C (105 percent). It’s also rich in manganese and Vitamin B1, all of which offer antioxidant protection and immune support. A good source of fiber and folate, pineapple is also a unique source of bromelain, a protein-digesting (and tenderizing) enzyme with potential anti-inflammatory benefits. Bromelain has been studied for its link to treating muscle aches and other sports injuries, intestinal distress and pain relief for shingles. One cup of peeled pineapple chunks contains about 82 calories.
What to Do with It
If your experience with pineapple has largely been out of a can, I urge you to give whole fresh pineapple a whirl, if only once. Although it requires some knife handiwork, the flavor and texture of the fresh stuff is incomparably superior to that of its tinned counterpart. It’s easy to be put off by its spiky crown and armor of scaly and prickly skin, but with a sharp, wide-edged knife, you can peel, trim and break down a pineapple in minutes. You’ll feel like a lion tamer and end up with a few extra bucks in your pocket; peeled and trimmed fresh pineapple on display in the produce section is mighty spendy.
So what’ll it be – pineapple in the raw, all cooked up or something in between (fermented)? While you ponder the options (see cooking tips below), consider putting the crown to work instead of throwing it into the garbage. In a warm climate, that crown can become your very own pineapple plant. Here’s the lowdown on sprouting it indoors before transferring to soil.
To refrigerate whole fresh pineapple: Yay or nay? This pineapple lover prefers to keep it at room temperature until ready to carve, but there’s no harm in keeping it chilled, either. On the one hand, a pineapple on the kitchen counter will perfume the room; on the other hand, it will decompose much more quickly than if stored in the refrigerator.
Once peeled and trimmed, fresh pineapple must be stored in the refrigerator where it will keep for three to five days in an airtight container.
Don’t throw out the skins: Underneath the scratchy surface, there’s enough pineapple-y goodess to make juice, vinegar or a fermented beer-like brew. In Mexico, that brew is called tepache and in South Africa, it’s known as imfulafula (recipe details follow).
Raw pineapple isn’t just for brunch buffet fruit salad anymore; it loves to play with savory ingredients, including herbs, chile peppers and garlic (ooh, and try it with a little fish sauce and lime, too). It also makes a terrific refrigerator pickle.
Cooked, pineapple delivers a very different flavor profile. Its acidity mellows significantly and the natural sugars really get a chance to shine. In addition to the earlier mentioned pineapple upside-down cake, cooked pineapple has figured into a few other iconic American dishes of the 20th century: Hawaiian pizza (which likely originated in Canada rather than Hawaii) and “baked ham” with pineapple glaze. In the 1935 edition of My Better Homes & Gardens Lifetime Cookbook, the recipe calls for “Pineapple juice (from 1 to 2 cupfuls added to the water in which the ham is cooked) gives the meat a new deliciousness. This rich liquor is reserved for basting the ham while it is baking.”
South of the border, the quintessential pork-and-pine marriage can be found in tacos al pastor, stuffed with shredded pork cooked on a rotisserie spit, seasoned with achiote paste and grilled pineapple. The fruit figures into a salsa which is served on top of the meat.
We’re keen to try this Mexican lentil stew courtesy of Mexican cooking doyenne Diana Kennedy. In her 2000 collection, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, Kennedy, teams up the legumes with plantains and pineapples (known as piña in Spanish).
Adapted from “Recipes from the African Kitchen” by Josie Stow and Jan Baldwin
1 large pineapple
6 quarts (or 24 cups) lukewarm water
2 cups granulated sugar
1⁄4 cup raisins
2 teaspoons instant dried yeast
- With a sharp, wide-edged knife, remove the crown of the pineapple and cut away the skin.
- Wash the skin, roughly chop and place in a large bowl or bucket. Use the trimmed pineapple flesh for another use.
- Pour the water over the skins, and stir in the sugar and raisins. Sprinkle the yeast on top, without stirring, and leave undisturbed for 30 minutes. (To encourage yeast activation, cover the mixture with plastic and away from drafts.)
- Stir the mixture, then cover with cheesecloth or muslin for 24 hours in a cool place away from sunlight.
- Strain the mixture through the cloth and pour into glass jars. Cover the jars with cloth, and keep at room temperature undisturbed for an additional 12 hours.
- Store in the refrigerator, loosely covered to minimize “exploding.” Use within a few days.
Makes 12 pints beer.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)