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How to Outdo Your Rivals With a Fruit

Throughout history, certain foods have been associated with wealth and social status. Did Cleopatra really bathe in an entire bath full of asses milk? Not any-peasant-could-get-it milk - asses milk. Whatever the truth, it sounds like something an all-powerful, endlessly wealthy, self-indulgent queen might do, writes Debra Palmen.

Fast forward through the centuries and visitors to Hampton Court Palace enjoying the hospitality of King Henry VIII and dining on roasted meat. This was not the baked in the oven joints we call roasts today; it was hand-turned on a spit over an open fire for hours and hours. It was hugely labour intensive and not something that appeared on ordinary tables, and that was the point - when you dined with Henry VIII, even if you were part of the aristocracy or an important visiting Ambassador, it was intended that you would be dead impressed.

And today, is it by chance that the high fliers in their corporate boxes at the Australian Grand Prix or Melbourne Cup serve lobster and caviar and those dinky but deceptively complex canapés only Michelin-starred chefs can make? No. It's all to impress their guests, to announce that they're somebody mere mortals can only aspire to be.

Food has been used as a signal of social status for as long as there has been social status.

But did you know the next time you enjoy a fruit salad you will likely be eating a food once considered so rare and exotic, so valuable and unobtainable, that only the most wealthy had even seen a real one?

It's the humble pineapple.

Enter the pinnacle of fruit

In colonial America the pineapple was once the absolute indicator of a woman with wealth and means and connections. A woman who could spend huge amounts on entertaining her guests. A woman who had a husband a whole lot richer than yours, dahling.

Consider the life of a wealthy woman-about-town in the American colonies. What was there to do? Needlecraft, yes. Running her household, yes. But visiting and offering hospitality was a primary form of entertainment, and out-doing each other was the most entertaining aspect of all.

Dining accessories such as pedestals and comports, considered archaic today, were once essential to a well-laid table. But what could you present on your table that would take it beyond the realm of merely well-laid, which would make your guests gasp in envy? Enter the pineapple.

In 1493 Christopher Columbus first encountered pineapples on the island of Guadeloupe, off the coast of Mexico. But the long, slow voyage from the Caribbean to pretty well anywhere meant they were prone to rot enroute and were next to impossible to import fresh. This rarity made them even more covetable.

By 1675 pineapples were still so exotic and high status that King Charles II commissioned a portrait in which he was depicted receiving from his gardener the first one cultivated in England.

Eventually, the fastest ships in the best weather were able to deliver the occasional small cargo of fresh pineapples to colonies on the east coast of America. But this only fueled the frenzy among society ladies. With each fruit costing about £150 (roughly $20,000 in today's money), being able to display a pineapple as part of your dining table decoration was a sign of true wealth and the highest social status.

To put that in perspective, in 1813 Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." A good fortune was considered to be £4000-5000 a year. That's 33 pineapples.

So began the trade in renting fresh pineapples.

Naturally this had to be done discreetly, with a Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy between a hostess and her guests. It would have been the height of rudeness to ask if a hostess had rented her pineapple, and a lady would certainly never reveal this. A giveaway, though, might have been that rented pineapples had to be returned in perfect condition within 24 hours, without little bites taken out of them. They were then sold to customers with the financial means to purchase and actually eat them.

Even with the knowledge that most pineapples seen at society dinners were rented, guests still appreciated the effort that hostesses made to impress them, and over time pineapples came to symbolise welcome and hospitality.

Pineapples, pineapples, everywhere you look

The motif, stylised and often seen without its spikey topknot, began to feature on gate posts, weather vanes, stair bannisters, door lintels, glassware and china, quilts and bedposts. In Hawaii, where the crop was first cultivated in 1896 and which today produces about one-third of the world's supply, almost all door knockers were cast iron pineapples until as late as the 1950s.

Today, this stylised design means that pineapple motifs are often mistaken for pinecones or acorns, but once you know what to look for you start to see them everywhere, from café entrances to door knockers to the sets of TV shows.

For example, look at the staircase banister finials of the café in Harrods of London the next time you enjoy lunch there - they're pineapples. Watch for a glimpse of the large pineapple finials on the gateposts of the Dunphy's home in the TV comedy series Modern Family, and the large white ceramic pineapple jardinière behind the hosts on the morning TV program Sunrise. Even if many people don't know the history and symbolism of this fruit, it has become a classic design motif.

Katherine Martin is a Queensland-based interior decorator who named her company Pineapple House specifically because of its symbolism of welcome and hospitality. She believes that today the pineapple symbol has 'gone mainstream' because of its strong, structural graphics.

"My children are forever pointing out pineapple doorstops, or in art and wallpaper," she laughs. "And when you start looking, you do see them everywhere." Despite her company name, Katherine does not go overboard when decorating with pineapples, having only one small picture in her home's entrance. "Most of my clients have no idea of the symbolism involved," she explains, "but many people appreciate its strong sculptural element and are then fascinated to learn about its history."

From the ultimate status symbol available only to the elite, to an enduring symbol of hospitality available to everyone, the pineapple has come a long way over the course of centuries. All this and you can eat it, too.

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.