Creative food display--the main entertainment during a formal home visit--was a means by which a woman declared both her personality and her family's status. Within the bounds of their family's means, hostesses sought to outdo each other in the creation of memorable, fantasy-like dining room scenes. At such feasts, tabletops resembled small mountain ranges of tiered, pyramided and pedestaled foodstuffs often drizzled and webbed in sugar, studded with china figurines, festooned with flowers and interwoven with garlands of pine and laurel. Dinners were extravaganzas of visual delights, novel tastes, new discoveries and congenial conversation that went on for hours.
While fruits in general--fresh, dried, candied and jellied--were the major attractions of the community's appetite and dining practices, the pineapple was the true celebrity. Its rarity, expense, reputation and striking visual attractiveness made it the ultimate exotic fruit. It was the pineapple that came to literally crown the most important feasts: often held aloft on special pedestals as the pinnacle of the table's central food mound.
Ships brought in preserved pineapples from Caribbean islands as expensive sweetmeats--pineapple chunks candied, glazed and packed in sugar. The actual whole fruit was even more costly and difficult to obtain. Wooden ship travel in the tropics was hot, humid and slow, often rotting pineapple cargoes before they could be landed. Only the speediest ships and most fortuitous weather conditions could deliver ripe, wholesome pineapples to the confectionery shops of cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Annapolis and Williamsburg.
A hostesses's ability to have a pineapple for an important dining event said as much about her rank as it did about her resourcefulness, given that the street trade in available fresh pineapples could be as brisk as it was prickly. So sought after were the fruits that colonial confectioners sometimes rented them to households by the day. Later, the same fruit was sold to other, more affluent clients who actually ate it. As you might imagine, hostesses would have gone to great lengths to conceal the fact that the pineapple that was the visual apogee of their table display and a central topic of their guests' conversation was only rented.
In larger, well-to-do homes, the dining room doors were kept closed to heighten visitors' suspense about the table being readied on the other side. At the appointed moment, and with the maximum amount of pomp and drama, the doors were flung open to reveal the evening's main event. Visitors confronted with pineapple-topped food displays felt particularly honored by a hostess who obviously spared no expense to ensure her guests' dining pleasure
In this manner, the fruit which was the visual keystone of the feast naturally came to symbolize the high spirits of the social events themselves; the image of the pineapple coming to express the sense of welcome, good cheer, human warmth and family affection inherent to such gracious home gatherings.
Whimsical pineapple shapes and interpretations became a ubiquitous form for "fun" food creations and general table decorations throughout the 1700 and 1800s. There were pineapple-shaped cakes, pineapple-shaped gelatine molds, candies pressed out like small pineapples, pineapples molded of gum and sugar, pineapples made of creamed ice, cookies cut like pineapples and pineapple shapes created by arrangements of other fruits. There were also ceramic bowls formed like pineapples, fruit and sweet trays incorporating pineapple designs, and pineapple pitchers, cups and even candelabras.
During the last century, the art of food display centered around the pineapple has faded to a quaint craft now largely associated with the making of certain kinds of Christmas decorations. These holiday fabrications are one of the few vestiges of an era when all life literally revolved around the dining room table; a less complicated era that left us the enduring icon of the colonial pineapple, a truly American fruit symbolizing our founding society's abiding commitment to hospitality as well as its fondest memories of families, friends and good times.