Gary Y. Okihiro

 

On his book Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones

Cover Interview of August 12, 2009

In a nutshell

Plucked from tropical America, the pineapple was brought to European tables and hothouses before it was conveyed back to the tropics, where it came to dominate U.S. and world markets.  Pineapple Culture is a history of the world’s tropical and temperate zones told through the pineapple’s illustrative career.  Following the author’s Island World, Pineapple Culture continues to upend conventional ideas about history, space, and time with its vision.

Bred by American Indians near the border of present-day Brazil and Argentina, the pineapple migrated, along with its handlers, to the Amazon basin, up the eastern coast of America to the Caribbean islands where Callinago Indians introduced the fruit to Christopher Columbus in 1493.  A captive, like other natives (peoples and plants) of the tropics, the pineapple was taken by the Admiral to his sponsor, Spain’s king, who pronounced the fruit a delicious gift of the “New World.”

In exile in the temperate zone and grown in hothouses, which mimicked its tropical home, the pineapple became a symbol of privilege, possession, and power, displayed in manicured gardens and on tables of excess.  Moreover, the fruit’s value was as a commodity, produced on tropical plantations tended mainly by migrant, “colored” labor and canned in modern, exacting factories for the temperate core of a world-system flowing with capital, labor, goods, and culture.

At the center of this story is the thoroughly modern tale of Dole’s “Hawaiian” pineapple, which, from its island periphery, infiltrated the white, middle-class homes of the continental United States.  That generic branding—“Hawaiian”—capitalized on the islands’ tourist image of tropical paradise, leisure, and sport in contrast to the realities of the kingdom’s forcible dispossession by the U.S. and the exploitation of Hawaiian and then imported workers.  The modern American housewife, “Hawaiian” pineapple commercials contended, needed, indeed longed for, the convenience, versatility, and nutritional value of canned pineapples.

In brief, then, the transit of the pineapple illustrates the history and geography of empires—their creations and accumulations; the circuits of the knowledge, capital, labor, goods, and cultures that characterize them; and their assumed power to name, classify, and rule over alien lands, peoples, and resources.