Rosewater, Wine, Sugar…and Tomato Sauce?

In November of 1493, intrepid Italian Christopher Columbus ruined pizza when, on his second voyage to the New World, he discovered piña de Indes, or Indian pine, which the Carib people called ananas, because it’s not a pinecone and they lived nowhere near India.

What he found was a spiky headed fruit that Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, writing in 1513, called “the most beautiful fruit of any of the fruits I have seen” and what today we know (thanks in part to Columbus) as the pineapple.

Sugar hungry Europeans generally thought this discovery was pretty neat, and almost immediately they began attempting to cultivate the pineapple a little closer to home. That proved pretty tough, because a tropical climate is something Europe definitely doesn’t have.

Charles II looking super excited to be receiving a pineapple. Hendrick Danckerts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was the Dutch that discovered the trick first, probably because the Dutch West Indies Company had a stranglehold on the pineapple importation business. And it may have been economist and businessman Pieter de la Court who, by the late 17th century, did it best in his innovative hot house that kept the soil and air temperatures in the range most conducive to pineapple cultivation.

Of course De la Court is remembered today not so much for his pineapple cultivating prowess, but rather for his writings in support of a thriving free market and his general disdain for the Caribbean shipping monopoly held by the Dutch West Indies Company. It seems likely then that he may have succeeded with the pineapple out of spite.


Coincidentally, I assume spite is the same reason otherwise seemingly reasonable people sprinkle pizza with a fruit described by 17th century English Botanist John Parkinson as tasting “as if Rosewater, wine, and sugar were mixed together.”

I admit pineapple is not my favorite fruit. It’s fine for garnishing fruity drinks when you’ve run out of cocktail umbrellas, but I just find it too sweet unless it’s cut with something a little less cloying. And no, I don’t mean tomato sauce, cheese, and ham. Yuck.

Steve pineapple
I can’t argue with this use of pineapple.

Actually, I think early pineapple enthusiasts in both Europe and America of the 18th and 19th centuries might have been on to something when they tended to see the pineapple as more decorative than consumable. Importing the perishable tropical fruit from the Caribbean was costly, often prohibitively so. If a host could get his hands on one to place in the middle of an elegant table display, it was sure to impress.

I don’t know if the rumor is true, but I think I’d like to live in a world in which people used to rent pineapples in order to impress their friends.

The pineapple then became a symbol of hospitality, gracing not only table displays, but also frequently as a feature of art and design. And if the Internet’s favorite pineapple rumor can be believed, the fruit was even available to rent for a special occasion, only to be later sold to the extremely wealthy who could actually afford to eat it.

By the early 1900s, James Dole had come along and begun his Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later the Dole Fruit Company), which soon made canned pineapple widely available, for a long time supplying more than 75% of the world’s pineapple needs. And now it’s so easy to get hold of, we even put it on pizza. Just to be clear, by we, I mean people who evidently have no taste buds and who are definitely not me.

So really maybe James Dole should get the blame. I suppose I can let Columbus off the hook for this one.

Go, Go Bananas!

Last week I received some exciting news from WordPress. I’ve been at this blogging thing for a little over two years now, posting once a week about history (sort of) and sharing bits of my experiences. And apparently last Thursday I published my 100th post.

Okay, so the number is a little inflated because I have reposted a couple of times. And, yes, if you know how many weeks there are in a year, then I’m sure you’ve realized I’ve missed a few weeks here or there. I am aware that many bloggers out there are way more productive than I am, posting two or three times a week. Some even post every single day!

That’s more than I can commit to because I’m a wife and mother and fiction writer, too. All of that comes first for me. But also because as shallow as my “research” often really is, it takes a fair bit of thought to put one of my posts together.

So when I saw that I’d posted 100 times to this blog, I was pretty excited. I wanted to celebrate. The question then, was how does one celebrate such an accomplishment?

Well, I thought about that, fielded a few suggestions from Facebook (mostly ice cream) and decided there’s really only one way to celebrate something this big: with BANANAS.

It even looks like a smile.
It even looks like a smile.

In 1876, the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by throwing a big party on a world stage. The Centennial Exposition of 1876 was the first World’s Fair to be hosted on American soil. It started May 10 in the host city of Philadelphia and ran for six months, including around 30,000 exhibits and welcoming a whopping 10 million visitors.

The Exposition was more than a celebration of America’s past. It was a declaration to the world that the nation was emerging as an industrial leader and world power. And it was an opportunity for visitors to experience first-hand the cutting edge of cool.

Among the exhibits was a 50-foot-tall Corliss steam engine, a travel bathtub, a 2000-pound mechanical calculator, the first commercial root beer, the arm and torch that would eventually grace the Statue of Liberty, some device called a “telephone” invented by a fella named Bell, and the first bananas available to the public in the United States.

I think it's pretty safe to assume that the 1876 Centennial Exposition also introduced the world to the banana phone.   photo credit: bhardy via photopin cc
I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the 1876 Centennial Exposition also introduced the world to the banana phone. photo credit: bhardy via photopin cc

Originating in Southeast Asia, bananas were cultivated possibly as early as 1000 BC. They came to the New World in 1516 where they were planted by a Spanish priest Tomás de Berlanga who later took them into Panama. The fruit spread rapidly through Central and South America, but it didn’t make the journey to the US until the 1870’s.

So when banana trees (actually according to most persnickety Internet “experts” the plants are technically herbs) went on display at the Exposition on June 5th and the fruits (or, again, for the persnickety, the berries) could be purchased for 10 cents each, wrapped in aluminum foil and eaten with a fork, Americans were smitten.

Clearly NOT a tree.
Clearly NOT a tree.

In the 138 years since, bananas have grown to be the most often consumed fruit in the United States. That’s despite the insistence of some fitness “experts” (whom I’m assuming are also persnickety) that these nutrient rich, portable, fiber-rich, low-fat super fruits are somehow bad for us.

So, I know I haven’t been posting for 100 years and I think it unlikely that this silly little blog will ever emerge as a dominant world power, but I’ve decided that I’m going to celebrate 100 practical history posts Centennial Exposition style anyway.

And because I also value the opinions of my friends, I think I’ll have ice cream, too.

Now we're talking!
Now we’re talking!