From 1493, when Columbus’ crew encountered pineapple in Guadeloupe, Europeans were infatuated with the astonishing fruit.
Maria Sibylla Merian, who painted the pineapple above, was an extraordinary woman, scientist and illustrator. Though she, too, was captivated by the pineapple, she was more interested in the butterflies and caterpillars she portrayed. Born in Germany in 1647, from her youth Maria was a keen observer of the natural world, particularly insects. By age 13, she had figured out the metamorphosis of a silkworm–nearly a decade before published accounts appeared.
Maria was radical for the 17th century. She left her an unhappy marriage, taking her two daughters with her to the Netherlands to join a religious community. While there, she saw a collection of exotic butterflies from Surinam, in South America, and she became obsessed with seeing the insects in their natural environment.
At age 52, she sold almost all her belongings and set sail, accompanied only by her 21-year-old daughter, on a difficult and dangerous voyage to Surinam, where she spent two years. Her phenomenal work from this period, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, with 60 colored plates that she painted and engraved herself, was widely acclaimed.
The book, Voyages of Discovery: A Visual Celebration of Ten of the Greatest Natural History Expeditions, shows many of Maria Sibylla Merian’s brilliant illustrations. You can also read her biography here at the J. Paul Getty museum’s exhibition about her and her daughters.
Back to pineapples.
Pineapples carried from South America to Europe on long expeditions usually didn’t fare too well. So Europeans, enamored with the fruit, decided to grow it in their hothouses. That was a challenging proposition, as pineapples require steady heat and light all year round–for two years or more.
The investment in expensive glass panes, stoves, and labor made this a hobby for the rich, royal and aristocratic, who wanted fresh pineapples for their banquet tables. Success was mixed at first, but pineapple hothouses were widespread by the 1760s.
The quote in the caption above is from a book on glass houses, orangeries and conservatories: Glass Houses, by May Woods and Arete Warren. The authors also describe the Dunmore Pineapple as “an amazing piece of eighteenth-century eccentricity, the ultimate in pineapple mania.”
That mania diminished as pineapple cultivation was introduced in the Azores, near enough to manage the voyage to Western Europe. In Hawaii, pineapple canning began in 1892. James Drummond Dole had a lot to do with the success of canned pineapple from Hawaii.
But there’s still something a bit exotic about a fresh pineapple.
How do you cut it?
Here’s a crude approximation of a method recommended by Fruit: A Connoisseur’s Guide and Cookbook: 1)Begin by slicing off the skin from the top of the fruit to the bottom. 2) “The secret of dealing with the eyes is to make diagonal incisions in the peeled fruit, angling the knife at 45 degrees so that it carves out long triangular strips containing the ‘eyes.'” (middle sketch). 3) On the right (badly drawn by me) is the prepared fruit ready to be sliced vertically or horizontally as you wish. Remove any hard cores and slice thinly.
This looks complicated but could be worth learning how to do, as you would cut out the eyes separately, with minimum waste of fruit. Well, I haven’t tried it yet. Please let me know if you attempt it.
But sometimes I like to cut a pineapple vertically, crown and all, and scoop out the insides, then mix the pineapple with other fruit–say oranges, kiwis, and strawberries or bananas– and fill the pineapple shell–a natural bowl–with the fruit salad.