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Book Review 265: The Pineapple
February 7, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THE PINEAPPLE: King of Fruits, by Fran Beauman. 315 pages, illustrated. Chatto & Windus
I live on a former pineapple farm on Maui, and I thought I knew something about pineapples. But I was surprised to discover from Fran Beauman's “The Pineapple” that pineapples were grown in England in the 18th century.
It was a social, not a gustatory phenomenon, despite the praise heaped on the fruit. “In its first 150 years of celebrity, never has a food been so eulogised,” she says.
It was a feat to grow and ripen a pineapple in cold, rainy England, and the cost of each was equivalent to the price of a new coach. Like a Hermes purse today, you could rent a pineapple for parties to pretend to other people that you were rich.
Today only one pinery still functions in England, and apparently all the ones that existed in colonial America have disappeared. Beauman claims to be the first to have recovered the history of pineapples in revolutionary America, where competing social claims vied for supremacy.
As a symbol of the hated (by some) English aristocracy, growing pines was disparaged, but as a sign of continental sophistication, it was aspired to.
Unfortunately, rather than writing a straight social history of the pineapple, Beauman tries to present the plant as an active player, using its skills to seduce Europeans into spreading it throughout the world. She is not skillful enough to carry off this conceit.
That the pine was endowed with social significance is certain; that is was quite as important in the overall social scene as Beauman makes it seems doubtful.
Her theme is that from a royal fruit – the very rare early examples were always given to kings – democratization robbed the king of fruits of its eclat.
Steamships made it possible to export fresh pines to rich countries and canned pineapple everywhere.
So? You could write a similar history about mutton.
Since people did not start eating pineapples (in Europe) until late, it is not strictly correct to call it an example of conspicuous consumption. It wasn't consumed.
It would be more convincing to describe the English production of pineapples as a form of Georgian potlatch, where the pine was passed from table to table until it rotted.
People who could not afford real pineapples made imitations out of stone, pottery, iron and wallpaper, and this could have been presented as an example of a cargo cult of a rising middle class anxious to attract real aristocratic pineapples.
But Beauman is not witty enough to do that.
"The Pineapple” is full of tasty tidbits but, like a plate of the fruit, does not amount to a satisfying meal.
Beauman winds up with a tantalizing social factoid, which, however, she does not explain. In 2000, the Parisian fashion house Chloe put out a line of swimsuits for women decorated with a pineapple on the crotch. This is evidently supposed to show the lingering power of the fantasy of the royal fruit, but in what way is not explained.
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