Now available in every grocery store in every state in both fresh and canned varieties, pineapples were so sought-after in colonial times that people would actually rent them for a day to use as a party decoration.
Yes, at one point in history, the pineapple was literally too expensive to eat.
Even today, fake pineapples are seen in centerpieces, while images and carvings of the fruit often appear in historic buildings.
Where did the main ingredient in upside-down cake get its prestige?
It all started with the age-old equation of supply and demand.
Once the world's most exotic fruit
Gold pineapples top both towers at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. (Photo: dun.can/flickr)
Early in the colonial era, explorers (including Christopher Columbus) brought rare crops back to Europe when they returned from the “New World.” Pineapples were among those exotic imports, along with items like cane sugar and avocados. But the highly perishable pineapple could not grow in European climes. Cultivation, even in the controlled environment of a “hothouse,” was extremely difficult. Still, members of the nobility liked the taste of the fruit so much that they were willing to pay a high price to get their hands on one.
The pineapple was extremely popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, and remained a symbol of wealth into the 17th century. King Charles II, who ruled England until 1685, posed with a pineapple for one of his official portraits. The spiny treat also was in demand in colonial America. George Washington praised the fruit in his diary, listing his favorite foods and then saying that “none pleases my tastes” like the pineapple.
From status symbol to symbol of hospitality
What did the high demand mean for the price? In today's money, a George Washington-era pineapple would cost as much as $8,000. Similar price tags were also recorded in Europe.
Because of their scarcity and price, pineapples were originally served only to most-honored guests. That idea was translated into pineapple images so that those who could not afford the fruit itself could still share the sentiment. Towns, inns and even individual households would display images — pictures or carvings — of the fruit in order to convey a sense of welcoming.
This practice was continued on dinnerware, napkins, tablecloths and even wallpaper.
That's why you often see pineapple carvings inside and outside of historic buildings such as inns or colonial-era plantation houses in the U.S. One of the more over-the-top examples of pineapple architecture is the Dunmore House, a folly in Dunmore Park, Scotland that has a roof shaped like a pineapple. Stateside, a pineapple fountain sits in a prominent location in the Charleston, South Carolina waterfront area. Most places are much more subtle: pineapple carvings topping gateposts, at the bottom of stairway railings or above doorways.
How did the pineapple become so common?
The Dole Plantation, a tourist stop on Oahu, Hawaii. (Photo: Matthew Dillon/flickr)
Today, the pineapple is often associated with Hawaii. The Aloha State produces one-third of the world’s pineapples and 60 percent of canned pineapple products. This, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Pineapples originally came from South America, likely Brazil or Paraguay. They may have arrived in Hawaii by way of the West Indies, where Columbus first tasted them, as early as the 16th century. Large scale production did not begin until the late 1800s. Nonetheless, today in America, people are likely to associate the image of pineapples with luaus, tropical cocktails and Hawaiian print shirts, not with glamorous parties.
Pineapples still make appearances in places when a good dose of hospitality is needed. They are sometimes included in housewarming fruit baskets, for example. You can still see numerous pineapple carvings in places where historic architecture has been preserved, too. In tourist-welcoming Charleston, for example, a former shipping center and an especially pineapple-rich city, pineapple carvings and other representations are found throughout the city.
And these days, if you want a taste of the real fruit, you can find them in your local market, where you won't have to spend $8,000 to get one.