The Dark History of the Holy City: What Lies Behind the Pineapples of Charleston, South Carolina

Slave ad Boone Hall Charleston SC

Placard in slave cabin exhibit at Boone Hill Plantation (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The sound of horses’ hooves clattered on the cobblestone streets and the golden light of the setting sun cast shadows over the faces of the people pawing through the piles of sweetgrass baskets in the City Market. I could close my eyes and think I’d gone back in time, the smell of horse manure ripe in my nose, lulled by the cries of the vendors, their sing-song Gullah- accented tones bringing back a sense of the West Africa I once knew. I turned and started down Church Street, passing Broad Street after several blocks, ending up on the waterfront, passing house after house with decorative pineapples adorning the gateways, mailboxes, and doors of immense mansions, a sense of the past emanating from every window, every staircase, every porch.

The truth is that 40 – 60% of slaves in antebellum America probably passed through Charleston after their terrifying trip across the Atlantic from Africa. And it was their labor on the cotton, tobacco, and rice plantations of the American South that made the merchants and sea captains of Charleston rich, so rich that they built the very mansions I passed. They used their plantations to make money and when they wanted a party, unlike the story in Gone with the Wind, where Scarlett O’Hara ambles about in her hoop skirt at a party at the Wilkes’ plantation, the planters descended upon their properties in the Holy City – as Charlestonians call their beautiful metropolis.

Verandah Charleston

The verandah of a Charleston house, south of Broad St. (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Surrounded by the marshy land that Pat Conroy so poignantly describes in The Prince of Tides, Charleston – like many other port cities in the New World – depended upon shipping and trade. But also on slavery.

So why is the pineapple (Ananas comosus) a seemingly universal symbol of hospitality?

The name comes from a Tupi word, na-na, meaning “excellent fruit,” with origins likely in Brazil. Columbus first encountered the pineapple in 1493 on the Leeward island of Guadeloupe, where the local people placed pineapples as a sign of welcome (and they also surrounded their houses with pineapple plants, the sharp serrated leaves acting as a natural wall, not unlike walls you’ll see in parts of Latin America with jagged pieces of broken glass cemented in haphazardly). Described by Gonzalo de Oviedo y Valdés in 1535 as having a mixture of flavors  similar to strawberry, melons, raspberry, and pippins, and “in taste, one of the best fruits in the world … . For those who are surfeited and do not want to eat, it is an excellent arouser of appetite.”

Europeans took up the same custom – of placing pineapples in prominent places, attesting to the hospitality of the house, for a number of reasons. Sea captains who returned from the Caribbean stuck pineapples on their gates, announcing their return. And since they were usually flush from the successful trade resulting from the voyage, they entertained their families and neighbors with treats and oddities only to be had from faraway places.

Marsh at Boone Hall Charleston SC

Lowcountry scenery near Charleston (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

This King of Fruit – so called by a Père du Tertre – became associated with the wealthy and noble classes, because only they could afford to buy them or grow them.

Ships Charleston

Rigged ship in Charleston Harbor, scant miles from Fort Sumter (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The English cultivated the pineapple in greenhouses/hothouses – invented in Holland by a French Huguenot – and pineapple pits. By 1642, Duchess of Cleveland’s hot-house grew pineapples – the pineapple can be propagated by pieces, even desiccated ones.

“Henry Telende’s method of pineapple cultivation was published in Richard Bradley’s A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening in 1721. Telende grew the young plants, called ‘succession plants’, in large cold frames called tan pits. The fruiting plants would subsequently be moved into the stove or hothouse to benefit from the additional heat provided by the hot-air flues.

The tan pits were lined with pebbles at the bottom followed by a layer of manure and then topped with a layer of tanners’ bark into which the pots were plunged. The last of these elements was the most important. Tanners’ bark (oak bark soaked in water and used in leather tanning) fermented slowly, steadily producing a constant temperature of 25ºC-30ºC for two to three months and a further two if stirred. Manure alone was inferior, in that it heated violently at first but cooled more quickly. Stable bottom heat is essential for pineapple cultivation and tanners’ bark provided the first reliable source. It became one of the most fundamental resources for hothouse gardeners and remained in use until the end of the 19th century.”(From “Pineapple Cultivation in Britain“. See alsoThe Botany of Empire in the Long Nineteenth Century“.)

A modern example is the pit at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.

Pineapples and gate Charleston 1

Pineapples on display (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Barbados became a source of pineapples for the English, as well as the colonialists in America, and 19-year-old George Washington – the future president and “father of his country” –  wrote in his diary in 1751 that  “none pleases my taste as do’s the pines [pineapple].”

Pineapple mailbox Charleston

More pineapple (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The story of the pineapple mirrors the global colonial story, a story which could only occur, as noted, because of slavery.

Pineapple fountain Charleston

Pineapple fountain on the waterfront in Charleston (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The beautiful houses, fountains, gates, and fences with their pineapple adornment testify to that, the ubiquitous presence of slavery or indentured servitude.

Pineapple and flag Charleston 1

Pineapple fence decor (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Pineapple motifs showed up everywhere.

Door with pineapple Charleston

Pineapple door knocker in Charleston (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

But it’s hard to forget the truth, as illustrated by this list of ships plying their cargo between Africa and Charleston between 1711 and 1858.

Slave ships to Charleston

The story behind the wealth in Charleston (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The presence of pineapples also occurred in the kitchens of cities like Charleston, as well as other parts of the United States in the years prior to the immense commercialization that took place once the canning process made it possible to preserve the fruit.

Charleston is also a site of tremendous African and French culinary influence, and in the future, I shall delve deeper into those areas.

Citron Cream, from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife (1824):

Cut the finest citron melons, when perfectly ripe, take out he seeds and slice the nicest part into a China bowl, in small pieces, that will lie conveniently, cover them with powdered sugar, and let them stand several hours, then drain off the syrup they have made, and add as much cream as it will give a strong flavor to, and freeze it. Pine apples may be used in the same way. (p. 177, Hess version).

And another recipe, this one from Godey’s Lady’s Book of March 1851:

To PRESERVE PINEAPPLE. — Cut off the rind, and divide the pine into tolerably thick slices; boil the rind in half a pint of water, with a pound of loaf sugar in powder, and the juice of a lemon, for twenty minutes. Strain this liquor, and boil the slices in it for a quarter of an hour; next day pour off the syrup; boil it, taking care to remove the scum as it rises, and pour the liquor quite hot over the fruit. Tie down the jar with bladder, having first placed brandied paper over the preserve.

Bricks at Boone Hall Plantation

Bricks made by slaves, at Boone Hall Plantation (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

For further reading about the food of Charleston:

Conroy, Pat. The Pat Conroy Cookbook (Doubleday, 2004)

Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (University of South Carolina Press, 1992)

Hirsch, Arthur H. The Huguenots of Colonial South Carolina (University of South Carolina Press, 1999)

Horry,  Harriott Pinckney. A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1770 (University of South Carolina Press, 1984)

Huguenin, Mary V. and Stoney, Anne M., eds. Charleston Receipts (Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co., 1950)

Rhett, Blanche S. Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking (University of South Carolina, Press, 1930)

Ravenel, Rose P. Charleston Recollections and Receipts. University of South Carolina Press, 1983)

Recipe Book of Eliza Lucas Pinckney 1756 (Charleston Lithographing Co., 1936)

Robinson, Sallie Ann.  Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way  (University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

_____. Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon, and Night (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

Rutledge, Sarah. The Carolina Housewife (W.R. Babcock & Co., 1847)

Taylor, John Martin. Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking (Bantam Books, 1992)

Thornton, P. The Southern Gardener and Receipt Book (1840)

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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