Tuesday, October 03, 2017

I was eating a kiwi fruit the other day. It showed up coyly snuggled next to a breakfast sandwich sold to me by the delightful ladies who run the catering and breakfast bar at the Rockfish Gap Community Center.

I found myself trying to remember when I’d first seen kiwi. I was young and they showed up in the grocery store one day and my mother, who was a wild woman in her own way, brought them home and figured out how to serve them. They were just mind-bogglingly exotic to me. Furry fruits. I rather distrusted them.

Wench fruit 2
There are many different kinds of kiwi fruits, not just the ones in US supermarkets
Kiwis apparently came from China and were originally called “Chinese gooseberries” as they spread around the world.

The Chinese themselves called them "macaque peaches" but that didn't catch on so much.

The fruit was popularized in the US by WWII servicemen who’d met them while stationed in New Zealand. And they seem to come to the store from California, not New Zealand. Life is a rich pageant of happenstance, isn't it?

“Hmmm,” I hmmed to myself while I was feeding much of my breakfast sandwich to the dog Mandy but eating all the kiwis, “What did my Georgian and Regency heroine encounter as new and exciting fruit as she went about her adventures?” Kiwis and avocados hadn’t arrived in her world. Apples and apricots and even dates were known from Roman times and before.

I thought of two possibles.Albert_Eckhout_-_Bananas _goiaba_e_outras_frutas 

 Bananas. (Did you know bananas are technically a berry. That’s the kind of little fact that’s likely to get you excluded from the company of all right-minded people if you go around pointing it out.)

Bananas spread from southeast Asia to the Middle East and Africa, making everybody happy as they went. The first written trace of their arrival in England was a recorded sale in 1633.

But archeologists found an ancient banana in a Tudor rubbish tip so a few of them were sneaking in even before the Tudors.

A Regency miss might have found one an expensive imported delicacy even in 1798 or 1811. Bananas didn’t get common till after refrigerated transport. Maybe her hero knew somebody who knew somebody in the shipping business.

“You can't teach calculus to a chimpanzee. So just share your banana.” John Rachel


These would be both familiar and unfamiliar to our Regency heroine.

Wench Still Life with Fruits and Pineapple 1833 - Johan Laurentz
Isn't that a pretty pineapple. There are all kinds of pineapples too.
The plant comes from South America and was spread by Spanish colonialists across the tropical regions of Asia and Africa. The Dutch took it from Surinam to Europe in the Seventeenth Century. Pineapples were ready to catch on, but it wasn’t at all easy to bring them halfway round the world.

So the Europeans grew their own in the cold gray north, being stubborn.

The first European pineapple was successfully reared at Meersburg in 1658. In 1723, a huge "pineapple stove" was built to warm the hot house at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Louis XV was presented with a pineapple grown at Versailles in 1733. Catherine the Great grew them. These were not your everyday cabbages. They were status fruits.

“When life gives you lemons, sell them and buy a pineapple. How to Better Your Life 101.” Davin Turney

Wench 1761 The pineapple at Dunmore Park (l.  photo National Trust)
Yes, it really is the Dunsmore Pineapple
So expensive and snazzy were pineapples in these early years of the Eighteenth Century that they were at first used for display at dinner parties rather than eaten. Like flowers.
Rumor has it the town fruitmongers would snap pineapples up as they came into dock and rent them out for parties . . . till they became questionable even as decoration.

Wench c.1810 Jean Louis Prevost- Still life
But the real fun for the great of the land was in growing them competitively. Hothouses became more and more elaborate as aristocratic gardening rivalry grew. The Earl of Dunsmore built a great hothouse on his estate topped by a stone cupola 14 metres high. They called it the Dunsmore Pineapple. (Earls just wanna have fun.)

By the end of the Eighteenth Century, the pineapple had become a staple of the well-to-do country garden hothouse. The carved pineapples on the Squire's gates promised lavish hospitality at the manor.

August: shift the succession of pineapples into larger pots, in which they are to bear; give but little water to ripening pines, lest the flavour be weakened.
      American Edition of the British Encyclopedia, 1819

Wench c.1685-1710- pineapple on the towers of present St. Paul's Cathedral  London
Pineapples on the towers of St Paul's Cathedral, London
Unless my Regency heroine is a card-carrying member of the haut ton, she might have grown to adulthood having seen the carved stone fruit but never having tasted pineapple.

When she’s served a slice, perhaps cooled on ice, she’d know she was being coddled.

Pineapples, you will be pleased to know, are technically a collection of berries. Yes. Pineapples too. Berries are awesome.

“Be a pineapple: Stand tall, wear a crown, and be sweet on the inside.” Katherine Gaskin


  1. Interesting! What about oranges and other citrus fruits? I guess that even though England is warmer than Sweden, they don't grow outside greenhouses?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. As it happens, I wrote a posting about oranges and lemons in England ..


  2. Excuse me, but I don't believe bananas are berries.
    I have to choose between believing you and believing Terry Pratchett.
    It's a tough choice, true. But how can you dispute this logic?

    “Yes, sir, but the Librarian likes bananas, sir."
    "Very nourishin' fruit, Mr Stibbons."
    "Yes, sir. Although, funnily enough it's not actually a fruit, sir."
    "Yes, sir. Botanically, it's a type of fish, sir. According to my theory it's cladistically associated with the Krullian pipefish, sir, which of course is also yellow and goes around in bunches or shoals."
    "And lives in trees?"
    "Well, not usually, sir. The banana is obviously exploiting a new niche."
    "Good heavens, really? It's a funny thing, but I've never much liked bananas and I've always been a bit suspicious of fish, too. That'd explain it.”

    1. I will bow to Terry Pratchetr's cladistics on this matter of bananas.

      Blowfish, however, obviously ARE very large berries, as anyone can tell by looking at them. I'm surprised this is not more widely recognized.

  3. Well, quite. Ineluctable logic.