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The Pineapple: The King of Fruits Hardcover – December 27, 2005
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"The fruit's story turns out to be a gripping tale of sex, (imperial) violence and anzieties about status. It is hard to imagine it better told.'" -- Matthew J Reiss * Independent on Sunday *
About the Author
Fran Beauman graduated with a first class degree in History from Cambridge and now writes and presents for television. Her passion for pineapples began with a childhood visit to the pineapple-shapedgarden retreat at Dunmore Park in Scotland and has taken her across the world.This is her first book.
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I hate to say it, but you can tell the author is a historian, and not a writer.
She needs to go back to Harvard (her alma mater, as it is pointed out several times) to take some creative writing classes.
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.
Unlike other histories told in dry, scientific terms, The Pineapple is also an amusing read - full of wit, and peppered with personal comments from the author that make the whole thing come to life.
My only criticism is that the evolving role of the pineapple in 20th century eating, drinking and entertaining is barely touched upon. The rest of the book is so thorough, that I'm hoping there are plans for a second book that focuses on the 20th century, perhaps even told through historic recipes from early uses as showy garnish to its continuing starring role in cocktails ever since Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber first started mixing, to its health benefits, as well as the continuing popularity of the pineapple as a decorative symbol.