This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Who’s Eating Who: Pineapples and You, first released on June 6, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
PIRATE: Are ye ready kids?
KIDS: Aye aye, captain!
PIRATE: Ohhh, who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
KIDS: Spongebob Squarepants!
PIRATE: Absorbent and yellow and porous is he!
KIDS: Spongebob Squarepants!
SINGER: If you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain… if you’re not into yoga, if you have…
NICOLA TWILLEY: Pop quiz, kids! What do these three things all have in common? We’ve got everyone’s favorite sponge, you know him as Bob. We’ve got a ragtime classic from Scott Joplin.
CYNTHIA GRABER: And then of course there’s the song that basically created the genre of yacht rock, it’s called Escape and it’s by Rupert Holmes, and I knew literally neither of those two facts, but I do know all the words to the chorus, because how can you not?
TWILLEY: And if you haven’t guessed what they have in common, it’s….the pineapple! The king of fruit and the topic of this week’s episode of Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber and this episode we have the story of a fruit that took Europe by storm. It drove people kind of out of their minds with fruit lust, they were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money to grow them at home, even up in rainy, chilly Scotland.
TWILLEY: Which may come as a surprise to those of you who know it from its more humble incarnation, as the life partner of cottage cheese and a staple in that hospital food go-to, fruit cups. So how did the once mighty pineapple fall?
GRABER: All that, plus how the pineapple conquered Hawaii. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
TWILLEY: But first, a quick appeal for your support. We know you can listen for free, but we also know you know that it costs money to make the show, and in fact it costs more money than we make from the adverts you hear. We need listener support to make Gastropod, plain and simple. So if you can chip in with any amount, we are so grateful. Gastropod.com/support or Patreon.
FRANCESCA BEAUMAN: I went to India with my then boyfriend, now husband, in about 2001. And on a plantation there was given, actually on the roadside, outside a plantation, there was given a slice of pineapple.
TWILLEY: This is Francesca Beauman, she’s the author of Pineapple, the King of Fruits. And as she says, it was on a trip to India that she had her pineapple moment.
BEAUMAN: And my goodness, it is unlike anything you get outside of the countries where it grows naturally. It’s so much sweeter and so much juicier and—it’s a cliche to say it tastes like sunshine, but it really, really does.
GRABER: At the time, Francesca kept enjoying herself, bite after sunshiney bite, but then the pineapple kind of bit back at her. Because it contains a unique enzyme called bromelain.
BEAUMAN: And that’s the chemical that digests protein basically. Eats away at your flesh. So I also remember sitting on the roadside outside this tea plantation with my lips kind of… burning up, starting to bleed.
TWILLEY: Francesca was essentially turning her own mouth into jerk chicken—that bromelain is why people use pineapple as a meat tenderizer.
GRABER: And that’s not the only part of a pineapple that’s kind of trying to fight us off.
BEAUMAN: A pineapple is a type of fruit, unusually encased in a very, very hard shell. With a spiky crown on top. It makes it very unappealing in the first place to try to access, because to do so is rather hard work. To peel it is much more difficult than a banana. To cut it up is much more difficult than an apple. You have to be really, really determined or hungry to bother. But when you get to the flesh of a pineapple, it’s really worth it, because it sort of tastes unlike anything else.
TWILLEY: The pineapple is originally from what’s now Brazil. A tribe in the Amazon domesticated it about 4000 years ago, alongside other more staple crops like manioc, also known as cassava.
BEAUMAN: And it was a quite central part of the culture there because it adds so much deliciousness to the diets, a bit like chili or something like that.
GRABER: Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t just a condiment, people just ate pineapples kind of straight. They also found ways to make a pineapple last longer. A Spanish Jesuit priest in what’s now Peru in the 1570s described what sounds like a pineapple pickle.
BEAUMAN: He wrote, “they eat it being cut in morsels and steeped a while in water and salt.” Tribes in Colombian and Venezuela also sometimes boiled them with manioc starch for, for breakfast. But they did also appreciate its its potential to liven things up and made pineapple wine, which was observed in Panama in 1503. Again, a Spanish traveler wrote about it. “I’ve drunk some of it, and it’s not very much like real wine for the great part because it’s very sweet.”
TWILLEY: Like the other bounty of the Americas, the pineapple’s charms were unknown to Europeans until Christopher Columbus made his fateful voyages. He came across the pineapple on his second voyage, in 1493, growing on the island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.
GRABER: The notebooks from that second voyage were lost, but his son Ferdinand recreated his notes from the trip, and he described their first encounter with what we now know is a pineapple.
BEAUMAN: He says it was “some fruit that looked like green pine cones, but much larger. These were filled with solid pulp, like a melon, but were much sweeter in taste and smell.” So the key adjective here, of course, is sweeter. Because at the time sugar in Europe was very rare and very expensive. So the idea that the pineapple was sweet, sweeter, a way of sweetening other foods was—immediately made people think, ka-ching. That there was going to be money in it, trade opportunities in it. That was immediately appealing.
TWILLEY: Columbus brought a few pineapples back to Spain with him, only one made it there before rotting, but he presented that survivor to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and here’s where the pineapple had a bit of a public relations coup. The king tasted it, and said he preferred it to all other fruits.
GRABER: To all others! This was the royal seal of approval, and the pineapple’s fame was sealed, too. Word spread quickly. Everyone who made their way to the New World had tasting a pineapple at the top of their to-do list.
BEAUMAN: You know, people say nice things about the melon. Sure. But the pineapple, early explorers really, really wrote about in this rapturous way for a long time. So. Typically, you know, Jean Delaria, a traveler in 1578 wrote: “I think it’s the finest fruit in America.” Or a Dutch doctor said, “there’s not a nobler fruit in the universe.”
TWILLEY: Seriously, some of this stuff was probably enough to make even a pineapple blush. People wrote that the pineapple exceeded all other fruits in quote “beauty of appearance, delicate fragrance, excellent flavor,” that it was quote “more delicious than any sweet apple sugared.”
BEAUMAN: I was sort of overwhelmed in my research by the number of times that it was mentioned by Spanish explorers, Dutch explorers, French explorers, all writing about, it’s sort of a bit like lovesick teenagers or something.
GRABER: Perhaps my favorite is, quote: “To taste it is so appetizing a thing, so delicate, that words fail to give it its true praise.” It was so amazing that the writer couldn’t even describe how amazing it was. Francesca says no other new fruit or vegetable from the New World was more instantly celebrated and beloved than the pineapple.
BEAUMAN: It was very helpful to the pineapple that it’s not mentioned anywhere in the Bible or in Greek or Roman texts, because of course it didn’t exist in those parts of the world at the time. But as a result, it was a completely blank page onto which to project whatever you wanted to project.
TWILLEY: So Europeans were completely bananas for pineapple, so to speak. But it wasn’t like they could just pop down to the supermarket and buy one.
BEAUMAN: It was incredibly rare to get hold of a pineapple. So every time one did arrive from the Caribbean, it was big news, whether it was at the Dutch court or the Spanish court or the English court, it was big news. It’s therefore no surprise that quite quickly, particularly with the horticultural competitiveness that was emerging in Northern Europe at the time, it’s no surprise that people started to think about trying to grow their own pineapples.
GRABER: The problem, of course, is that the pineapple isn’t so easy to grow in Europe. It’s a tropical plant, and it needs constant heat and lots of sunshine over the course of two to three years, that’s how long it takes for a fruit to grow to maturity.
BEAUMAN: But, Northern European gardeners were not going to let that put them off.
TWILLEY: Listen, there wasn’t great TV back then, so people who had leisure time had to invent ways to pass that time, and one of the things they got into was competitive gardening. In the 1600s, tulips had been all the rage—historians call it tulipmania. For a while, especially in the Netherlands, aristocrats spent a fortune on buying and growing the hottest tulips.
BEAUMAN: The pineapple then took on that mantle. It became the next goal for northern European gardeners to show off how talented they were, how creative they were. And also of course it was a great way of demonstrating their own status. Because goodness, if you could grow your own pineapple, what miracle couldn’t you work? So, particularly the Dutch and the British put an extraordinary, some might say absurd, amount of time and energy into trying to grow the first pineapple.
GRABER: The Dutch won this race, a woman named Agnes Block grew a single, miraculous pineapple in 1685—this was made possible because of the first all-glass hothouses that let enough light in, they were only invented three years earlier. As it happens, Agnes was one of the very few women working in the super male field of botany in Europe at the time. She was so proud of her achievement she even adopted the pineapple as her personal emblem.
TWILLEY: The Dutch were ahead of the curve at this phase in history, but the trend soon hopped the channel and the British embraced it fully.
BEAUMAN: At the same time, in England in 1714, the first pineapple there was raised. Again by a Dutch gardener, Henry Telende, but who had come to England to work for a merchant named Sir Matthew Decker. That was big news. It was written about in, in lots of different places. And after that, from 1714, very quickly to grow a pineapple becomes *the* craze of the aristocracy. If you’re an aristocrat and you weren’t trying to grow your own pineapples, you were no one.
GRABER: So we mentioned that the pineapple needs heat and sun, but they need something else, and that’s warm soil. It’s hard enough to keep the hothouse itself well heated, but heating the soil took the discovery of something called tanner’s bark.
BEAUMAN: Tanner’s bark is a sort of bark taken from the oak tree that is then crushed up. Crucially, it, it generates heat, but without the smell of manure, which you can imagine for the aristocrats that were funding this process was pretty crucial.
GRABER: These bits of bark were first used to tan hides. People at the time weren’t regularly using mulch, so it was quite a happy discovery to find out that the dark color of the bark absorbed light, and as the chips slowly composted they also generated some heat, and that made the pineapple roots toasty, too.
TWILLEY: These new pineapple houses—they were called pineries and they were kind of incredible. You had all this wildly expensive glass, the tanner’s bark mulch, and a whole coal-fired heating system for the air.
BEAUMAN: The problem there, of course, they were very dangerous. So it also meant if you were trying to grow your own pineapples you would employ a garden boy specifically for that purpose, who would sit in the pineapple house 24 hours a day, sleep in there, everything, to make sure that the pineapple plants didn’t burst into flames. They would put on more tanner’s bark, make sure the heat was right. Again, this is over, over a period of two to three years, the amount of labor and money that was going into it really was extraordinary.
GRABER: If this all sounds over-the-top expensive, and completely out of control and ridiculous, well, it was.
BEAUMAN: It meant that by the 1720s and 1730s, I’ve calculated that the total cost of growing your own pineapple was about 80 pounds in, in money then. That was the same as the cost of a new coach. So really an extraordinarily high outlay just for one pineapple, but yet they thought it was worth it because such was the sense of status it demonstrated to those around them. Status, power, domination, wealth.
TWILLEY: All the good things! The British aristocracy was all in on pineapples.
BEAUMAN: So that really, by the 1760s, every great country house in Britain was growing their own pineapples, even up in Scotland where it’s even colder, and their financial outlay was even more enormous. They’re not only growing their own pineapples. I cannot express to you how much those aristocrats are going on about it. So in some of their letters and some of their gardeners’ letters, honestly, it’s all they talk about for weeks and months at a time. It’s extraordinary as a historian to read through them, how much they talk about their pineapples, how are they doing, have they fruited yet? If they do fruit, who are they going to give them to? Where are they going to take them? Are they going to have them at dinner, at the country estate, or send them to London to their townhouse? That the amount of energy that was expended on this one fruit is just extraordinary.
GRABER: And if this isn’t shocking enough, wait til you hear what they did with these pineapples.
BEAUMAN: They often didn’t eat the pineapple because a pineapple was such a powerful symbol of status. Why would you eat that? It would be a bit like eating your Gucci handbag. What a waste. They would be displayed on the dinner table for weeks at a time. But often until they began to rot. It was really an absurd way of living, but of course, any assertion of status, right, is pretty absurd once you really drill down into it. And the pineapple was no exception.
TWILLEY: The pineapple had become a lot more than just a fruit. Pineapple heat was a term—people might say, oh, at the ball, the room filled with people dancing got up to pineapple heat, meaning as hot as a tropical greenhouse. Then, in philosophy, the elusive taste of the pineapple came to represent the nature of knowledge itself. The famous British philosopher John Locke used it to make the case that you could only really know things if you’d experienced them—otherwise it was like imagining the taste of a pineapple if you’d never had one.
GRABER: And the pineapple was so ephemeral—I mean, after a few weeks it rotted. So if you wanted everyone to know how much experience you had with the pineapple, how much true knowledge, you might have, say, a painting of a pineapple, or it might be carved into stone atop your gates, or the wood of your bed posts, or painted on your porcelain serving platters. If you could, you might even build an entire pineapple shaped pavilion in your garden.
BEAUMAN: What’s interesting to me is that, that’s often these days discussed as a symbol of hospitality. But in fact, that’s a misnomer. That’s only emerged very recently. In the 18th century, at the time, it was a symbol really, of the very opposite of hospitality. It was a way of saying, look how rich I am. Look at my status. Stay away unless you can compete within my social sphere.
TWILLEY: That is a sick pineapple burn. But pineapple’s moment at the top of the bedpost was not to last forever. We’ve got the story of how the fruit of kings turned into a canned dessert for the masses coming up next.
GRABER: Before the pineapple became the star of the jello mold, first it had to become more widely available. And the first step to that happened when shiny new steamships started carrying it from the Caribbean to the UK.
BEAUMAN: The first large import to London was in the 1850s. That’s when you start seeing lots and lots of pineapples on the streets of London, particularly at Covent Garden Market. There’s all sorts of wonderful prints from the time of, of all these pineapples being sold at Covent Garden Market and people wide-eyed. Charles Dickens mentions it in Great Expectations. There’s a trip to go and wonder at the pineapples that are being sold because they’re so extraordinary, not just in their existence, but in the sheer numbers of them.
TWILLEY: Before, with sailing ships, the journey took so long that unless you were very lucky with the winds, most of your pineapples would be rotten by the time they got to the UK or US. Steam ships changed all of that, and then by the end of the 1800s, you had—wait for it!—refrigerated ships, and that made importing pineapples even more feasible.
BEAUMAN: As a result, with pineapples all over the place, of course it became a less desirable, less worth it to grow your own. Why would you bother? The aristocracy moved onto something else, as they always do. They always do. Always in search of something to assert their status. They were still expensive, even when they’d been imported from the Caribbean. So they remained a symbol of luxury, just not quite as much. So, you would still buy them to have at a fancy dinner. Maybe at a birthday. You’d put it in the middle of the table. You would eat it, but it would certainly be a special treat. It remained associated very powerfully with luxury.
GRABER: Finally, the middle class was occasionally able to afford a taste of such a marvelous fruit, and recipes started popping up for things like pineapple chips, preserved pineapples, and pineapple fritters. For the fritters it says to ‘pare the pine with as little waste as possible.’ Slice it into thin slices, soak them in brandy or liqueur and pounded sugar for four hours, and then dip in batter and fry them. And finally, quote, ‘dish them on a white d’oyley, strew them over sifted sugar, and serve quickly.’ Sounds delicious.
TWILLEY: By this time, even the working classes could hope for an occasional taste of sunshine in fruit form. Henry Mayhew, who we just heard from in our fish and chip episode, he wrote that quote, the poorer people—sweeps, dustmen, cabmen—”occasionally had pennyworths just for the fun of it.”
BEAUMAN: It’s why it then pops up in a lot of 19th century literature. So, for example, William Makepeace Thackery who wrote Vanity Fair talks about it in his, another of his novels, Pendennis, he says, “and as is the race of pineapples, so is the race of man.” It, it’s really an assertion of, of progress and change. All that was going on in, in London, in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution techniques. Light, refrigeration were changing so much about the way people lived.
GRABER: Electric lighting had nothing much to do with pineapples, refrigeration helped, but it was the can that really made the difference. In the early 1800s, canning was invented in France, we’ve talked about this before on Gastropod. But the big, spiky pineapple with the solid core didn’t make for an easy fit.
BEAUMAN: So attempts were made to can pineapples in the Bahamas as early as 1857. But it didn’t work that well. It wasn’t until the invention of the Zastro machine, that was patented in 1892. That removed the fruit’s core and then sliced it up, although it couldn’t peel it. So then there had to be a new invention that was called the Lewis Peeler that did exactly this at a rate of four per minute. And of course that then changed everything for the pineapple forever after that.
TWILLEY: Imports of pineapples into the US and UK doubled practically overnight. The pineapple was finally poised to go mainstream.
GRABER: At the time, most of the imports came from the Caribbean. But the place that would soon come to epitomize the pineapple was Hawaii.
VOICEOVER: Far to the south and west of the United States, at the crossroads of the Pacific, lie the Hawaiian Islands. The group consists of eight fairly large and numerous smaller islands, the entire group having been built up from the sea bottom by geologically recent volcanic
TWILLEY: This is an educational film from the 1940s, made by the American Museum of Natural History and Encyclopedia Britannica with Margaret Mead, the famous American anthropologist. It is very… of its time.
VOICEOVER: In Hawaii, the white man’s mass production methods including vast irrigation projects have resulted in crops of pineapple and sugarcane more valuable per acre than in any comparable area throughout the world. Due largely to climate and scientific production
GRABER: Pineapples aren’t actually native to Hawaii, nor are they one of the crops like taro and breadfruit that Polynesians carried across the Pacific with them on their humongous canoes, which of course we’ve been talking about a lot lately on Gastropod.
BEAUMAN: Do you know, we don’t really know exactly how the pineapple got to Hawaii. We can guess that it may have come with any of the explorers who were turning up there. They, they may have had it, you know, on their boat. It might have been a visit by explorer Juan Gatano in 1555. Or Captain Cook in 1778, captain James Cook. It’s a bit of a mystery.
TWILLEY: The only thing we can say with certainty is that by the early 1800s, it was there.
BEAUMAN: The earliest reference to the pineapple in Hawaii is, is in the diary of a, of an explorer called Don Francisco de Palamarin. He writes about it in 1813. He says, “this day I planted pineapples and an orange tree.” So it’s pretty prosaic statement, but it means we do have evidence of of, of when it was first there.
GRABER: The pineapple may not have been native to the Hawiian islands, but the climate there was perfect for the fruit, and so a lot of people started growing them. But they weren’t of any particular interest commercially until gold was discovered in California in 1848.
BEAUMAN: It was only really with the gold rush that there was sufficient demand to make it into a a real business. So the gold rush of, you know, 1848, it meant between July 1850 and July 1851, 21,310 pineapples were shipped from Hawaii to California, which was just an enormous increase. That’s huge numbers for those days.
TWILLEY: If you were scooping gold out of the ground, you could definitely afford to treat yourself to the king of fruits. But, even with steamships, preservation was a problem. If the Hawaiian pineapple was going to truly take off, it needed to be canned.
BEAUMAN: It was, it was a slightly eccentric Englishman who first saw the potential of the Hawaiian pineapple canning industry. He, he established it in, in 1885, he bought five acres of land on Oahu. He experimented with various kind of pineapples. And then in 1892, established the first pineapple cannery in Hawaii.
GRABER: This eccentric Englishman was named John Kidwell, and he also experimented with trying to find just the right pineapple to grow and export. He ordered baby pineapple plants from Florida and Jamaica, he didn’t love those. He ordered four samples of all 31 known varieties, a lot of them came from Kew Gardens in England, and he finally settled on the Smooth Cayenne variety. As it happens, that one is still one of the most popular commercial varieties today.
TWILLEY: Kidwell did a lot, but it wasn’t enough. Because: Hawaii was still an independent nation, and so imports from Hawaii into the US were taxed. Heavily.
BEAUMAN: They were all, you know, picked by hand and, and there was a tariff of 35% on all processed food products shipped from Hawaii to, to the US mainland. So it wasn’t easy. He found it hard to really make a profit out of, out of it. But he certainly, you know, showed others that there was money to be made if only they could get the technology right.
GRABER: Technology—but, maybe even more importantly, policy. John Kidwell gave up on pineapples and went all in on sugar. But in 1898, Hawaii became a US territory. Basically the businessmen and people who owned sugar plantations were tired of paying high tariffs to the US, and so they revolted and deposed the HawaiIan queen. This may have been really bad for Hawaiians but it was also helpful for pineapple plantation owners.
TWILLEY: As a result the tariffs on Hawaiian produce imported into the US disappeared—and an American named Sanford Ballard Dole was installed as the new leader of Hawaii. Remember that surname, it’s about to become highly relevant.
GRABER: Because one year later, the son of a Massachusetts clergyman arrived in Hawaii ready to make his fortune: Sanford’s cousin James Dole. At first, Dole thought he might get into coffee, but then the pineapple called his name.
BEAUMAN: He opened his first pineapple cannery in 1902, which he called, rather boringly, the Hawaiian pineapple cannery. [LAUGHS] You think he could have a little bit more imagination, but no.
GRABER: To make his pineapple fortune, Dole had to start planting, and he did that with great enthusiasm. In the early 1900s he bought 61 acres on the island of Oahu and planted 75,00 pineapples.
BEAUMAN: In 1903, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company packed 1,893 cases of canned pineapple. A year later, it was over 8,000. Three years later, it was about 125,000, and the mass production of pineapple really had become a reality, turning Dole into the massive corporation that, that we know now. I mean, other Hawaiian pineapple companies did emerge. And by 1940, Hawaii was by far the world’s biggest supply of canned pineapple. But it, it was James Dole who, who really established the industry as a very commercially viable one.
TWILLEY: Wait, does this all mean we have to go back to Hawaii, Cynthia?
GRABER: The things we do for you, dear listeners. That’s coming up, after the break.
RUDY BALALA: If, if you ask anybody, I think we do have one of the prime pineapple growing regions in the world. You know, we are at the right elevation. We got the right soil, we got the rainfall when Mother Nature cooperates. But you know, I, I think we do have the perfect conditions. Hot days, cold nights.
TWILLEY: This is Rudy Balala. He’s general manager of the Maui Gold Pineapple Farm on you guessed it Maui.
BALALA: So what you guys are looking at right now is, this is a field that’s currently being planted. We plant year round. And we always make sure that we plant a certain amount of plants every week so we can have 52 weeks of the year production.
GRABER: The farm itself was kind of what you’d expect, it was acres of a single crop growing all around us. But that crop itself was pretty unusual. The pineapple grows on its own throne, kind of like the king of fruit that it is: the spiky narrow leaves of the plant grow out all around it, and it’s kind of sitting in the middle, like a foot above the ground, just growing on that chair.
TWILLEY: It’s both weird and kind of gorgeous. The plant itself looks like a greener, grassier kind of agave, but then there are these hot pink-purple starbursts in the middle, with baby pineapples just sitting there, growing out of them.
CARRIE HISASHIMA: They look like little cactus. I mean, they’re pokey. You need proper protection when you’re going and working in the fields. We, our people use gloves, they use long sleeved shirts, protective eyewear, and they wear chaps over their pants.
GRABER: Carrie Hishashima is the farm manager.
HISASHIMA: Most people think that you can pick ’em off of a tree, over the top of your head, that you grab ’em from up there. But no, we show ’em that this is how it really grows from the ground.
TWILLEY: Every single pineapple plant in front of us—all three million of them—they were all clones.
GRABER: To get new baby pineapples, there are a number of things you can do. You could cut off the crown of the fruit and plant it, but the crown is sent with the fresh fruit to market. But luckily there’s another option.
HISASHIMA: If you were to look at how a pineapple grows, underneath the pineapple, there would be these things called slips. Which actually look like crowns. And what we’ll do is we’ll break ’em off and we’ll gather them and we’ll throw them into the field. And those are what we plant.
GRABER: The plants have to grow up for about a year before they can produce fruit.
HISASHIMA: After about, let’s say 10 to 12 months, when they reach the proper size. We’ll, we’ll go and induce them to flower. We do it chemically so that everything is uniform. If you had to wait for a pineapple plant to flower on its own, you would have random pineapples over the course of a year to two years.
TWILLEY: Basically, Carrie and Rudy spray the fields with a liquid that contains a plant hormone called ethylene. And that tells the plant it’s time to grow up and move on to the next stage in its life cycle, which is flowering. And then those flowers turn into fruit.
GRABER: And the fruit is a little more complicated than it looks—that one pineapple is actually many fruits in one. The patchwork look on the pineapple, where it looks kind of quilted? Each of the diamonds was originally a tiny berry, and then it all fuses together into one giant mega berry.
TWILLEY: Otherwise known as a pineapple.
GRABER: What are we looking at here?
TWILLEY: They’re adorable, is what we’re looking at. [ALL LAUGH]
GRABER: Little baby pineapples.
BALALA: Yeah, so this one is past the flower stage now, it’s what we call past dry petal. So now the fruit is going to start stretching out.
GRABER: After about six months more, they use ethylene once again to get the plants to all change color to a beautiful yellow at the same time.
TWILLEY: The pineapple is already ripe and sweet and big—Rudy told us they shoot for a five pound fruit. The ethylene just turns it from green to gold.
BALALA: Just putting makeup on it, that’s all, basically. We are just putting a coat of makeup on it. Make it pretty for the market.
GRABER: That market used to be huge. When pineapple was at its peak in Hawaii, it was nearly everywhere. At the time, Hawaii produced about three quarters of the world supply of the fruit.
BALALA: Hawaii was at one time known to be the largest producer of pineapple in the world. And from what I understand, the pineapple farm on Lanai was once the largest pineapple farm in the world.
TWILLEY: James Dole literally bought the entire Hawaiian island of Lanai in 1922, to turn it into a pineapple plantation.
BEAUMAN: So much of Hawaii was taken over by the pineapple. It really was the primary industry there for a long time.
TWILLEY: As early as the 1930s, 1 in 4 women on Hawaii worked in one of the islands twelve pineapple canneries. They and the men, who mostly worked in the fields, lived in pineapple towns that were built by pineapple companies. The ladies were bussed to work at 6am prompt for a full day of canning.
BEAUMAN: Oh, there’s so many wonderful photographs actually, of the Hawaiian pineapple plantations. And I don’t know why I say that with a fond voice, because of course they violated every labor law that we would have today. They were incredibly hard work. The workers there had to start at 6:00 AM. They brought people in from all over the world, particularly Japan, to work there. There was lots of advertising by the pineapple canning companies in Japan, to, to get more workers there.
GRABER: As Francesca says, it wasn’t all sunshine and sweetness. Not only was the work hard, but the canneries were really loud and smelly, in a bad way, and hot, and the pineapple itself, as we mentioned at the beginning of the episode, it kind of tries to eat you because of the bromelain.
BEAUMAN: It was only after a few years that workers began to wear gloves to access the flesh of the pineapple. Before that, people would really suffer from bleeding hands as they would spend all day you know, with their hands in, in pineapple juice.
TWILLEY: Oof. Not exactly the kind of image you want to have in customers’ minds. And as it happens, advertisers were peddling a very different narrative.
BEAUMAN: The advertising companies worked really hard to associate the pineapple with Hawaii. As paradise, as the playground of the rich. As a tropical place where all your problems went away and everything was marvelous. The idea that you could open a tin of pineapple and instantly evoke paradise, holidays, all of that.
GRABER: At the time, in the 20s and 30s, something else was going on—tiki culture was taking off, we talked about this in our episode called Tiki Time, and people in the US were fascinated with a kind of stereotypical imagined Pacific paradise. The pineapple fit right in.
TWILLEY: And of course, the pineapple had long been associated with luxury and even royalty.
BEAUMAN: So certainly the advertising companies would talk about its royal heritage. You know, Dole’s company slogan for a while was, “by nature crowned the king of fruits.”
GRABER: But potential customers didn’t have a lot of experience with a pineapple, fresh or canned,
BEAUMAN: It was also a challenge to tell consumers what to do with a pineapple. Many people weren’t, weren’t quite sure how to cut into it, so they were advertisements that talked about, “you cut it just like a peach.” Along with many that offered housewives at the time, the most extraordinary range of recipes. The best one I saw was for pineapple with baked beans.
TWILLEY: At first, the recipes were all for desserts, the legendary pineapple upside down cake appeared early and often. But in the 1920s, savory pineapple dishes crept into the mix, like that one recipe for baked bean a la pineapple. And another for a ham baked with pineapple—a precursor to the divisive Hawaiian pizza that was invented in the 1960s, maybe. That was actually invented in Canada by a Greek immigrant but that’s a whole other story.
WOMAN: It’s the oddest fruit in the world! Prickly outside, tingly sweet inside. It’s Dole pineapple, in its own juice. It brings new life to cottage cheese! Magic to meatballs! Or chicken! Or ice cream!
MAN: More people make more things with Dole Pineapple. Because it brightens just about anything on your table!
GRABER: The Hawaiian pineapple companies—by this time there was more there than just Dole—by the mid to late 1900s, they were spending a fortune on advertising. It cost them 17 million dollars in the 1980s to hire Kenny Rogers, yes that Kenny Rogers of The Gambler fame!
KENNY ROGERS: You got to know when to hold ‘em… know when to fold ‘em… knwo when to walk away…
GRABER: They hired him to promote pineapples!
ROGERS: From the general valley, to the mountains high above… The fruit of this earth is the sweetest a man can grow.
GRABER: And all that promotion worked. Canned pineapple had become so popular that it had moved past being a special treat, the king of fruit, and it had become a regular part of your trip to the grocery store.
Kenny Rogers: Pure pleasure…Aloha! Pure pleasure, from Dole!
TWILLEY: Accessible, down home, but still kind of you know, exciting!
MAN: This… is the one.
WOMAN: [WHISPERING] Del Monte.
MAN: The sweet one.
MAN: The delectable one. Taste it.
WOMAN: Taste it.
MAN: Mmmm. Juicy.
WOMAN: Del Monte.
TWILLEY: It’s that Hawaii pineapple magic—sun, sand, sea and you know, sex.
GRABER: So Hawaii helped create this mystique, but Hawaii was no longer the place where all those pineapples were coming from.
TWILLEY: As early as the 1950s, some of the biggest pineapple producers were moving their operations overseas—pests and diseases and just the higher cost of labor were making growing pineapples in Hawaii an expensive proposition.
BEAUMAN: Del Monte established a pineapple plantation abroad. And by 1975, Thailand had surpassed Hawaii to become the largest producer of, of pineapples in the world. So. You know, for a while it was central to the economy of Hawaii, but only for a hot minute really, in its history. The myth there has endured much longer than the industry has.
GRABER: Rudy told us one cannery on Hawaii held out all the way into this millennium—
BALALA: It lasted—on Maui, it lasted all the way out ‘til July of 2007. That’s when the last pineapple cannery in the United States shut down. And it was located on this island.
TWILLEY: These days the few pineapples that are grown on the islands are all for fresh consumption, either locally or for export.
BEAUMAN: Today, most of the world’s pineapples are grown in Costa Rica. Followed by the Philippines. Not least because the cost of labor there is much lower than it is in Hawaii and many other countries.
HISASHIMA: Now we’re down to 10%. Less than 10% of the total world’s pineapple population.
GRABER: But of course we had to taste a sample of what they do still grow there. Rudy and Carrie took a freshly harvested hefty fruit off the conveyor belt and cut it up for us.
GRABER: So, here we have a freshly cut pineapple.
BALALA: This is something right off, off of the conveyor, so.
TWILLEY: Could not be fresher.
BALALA: Right off the plant.
TWILLEY: This is the freshest pineapple I’m ever going to have eaten .
GRABER: That is true.
TWILLEY: All right. It smells incredible. It’s got a really, it’s got a lovely like—
TWILLEY: Coconut, yeah.
BALALA: Certain times of the year, the fruit will have like, a slight coconut taste to it. Certain times of the year, it might have a, like a mango taste to it. Hard to predict when, but you’ll, you’ll taste a little bit of a hint of something else in it.
GRABER: I definitely get coconut. It’s wild.
TWILLEY: It’s delicious, is what it is.
MAN: The sweet one.
MAN: The succulent one.
WOMAN: Taste it! Del Monte…
MAN: The tingly one.
MAN: The juicy one.
WOMAN: So juicy…
TWILLEY: And we’ll take the rest of of our little pineapple orgy off the air, in order to keep our PG-13 rating. Thanks this episode to Francesca Beauman, she’s the author of The Pineapple: King of Fruits. And to Carrie and Rudy at Maui Gold Pineapple company, if you can ever get your hands on one of their fruits, you are in for a treat. I already loved pineapple, but theirs is next level.
GRABER: And don’t forget, if you can support the show, please do—we rely on the financial support of listeners like you, you make Gastropod possible. Gastropod.com/support or Patreon. And thanks as always to our fantastic producer Claudia Geib, we’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode for you all, ‘til then!