In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, John Locke asserts the impossibility of knowing the taste of pineapple before you have actually tasted it. This is not just a throwaway remark; he returns to the point in several drafts and in several places. In 1671, Locke wrote that the man who has never had pineapple, that “delicate” fruit, “in his mouth” cannot have a true or “new” idea of it. He can only have an amalgam of “old” ideas based on the descriptions of travellers. Later, he wrote that “we see nobody gets the relish of a pineapple, till he goes to the Indies, where it is, and tastes it”. To think that you could relish a pineapple without really experiencing it was like imagining you could see colours in the dark. The person who “from his childhood, never tasted an oyster, or a pineapple” does not know the particular taste of these things. And again: “let him try if any words can give him the taste of the Pine-Apple, and make him have the true idea of the Relish of that celebrated delicious Fruit”. For Locke, who had never tasted a pineapple himself, this was impossible. Only first-hand sensory experience could give knowledge of the taste – the quiddity – of pineapple.
Locke’s choice of the pineapple to make his point was not random. In a sense, the structure of his argument would have worked just as well had he chosen apples instead of pineapples. But who in England in the 1670s was not acquainted with the particular “relish” of an apple? The pineapple, by contrast, was the ultimate in inaccessible luxury fruit. Unless you were close to royalty, or a traveller to the West Indies, you were very unlikely to have been anywhere near one. Moreover, those who had tasted its yellow flesh, described it as peculiarly complex and elusive. Richard Ligon, in a history of the Caribbean, claimed that “nothing of rare taste can be thought on that is not there”. Some thought it musky. Others thought it combined all that is “most delicate in the Peach, the Strawberry, the Muscadine Grape and the Pippin”. John Evelyn, the courtier and salad expert, disagreed. When he tasted chunks of pineapple cut up by the King himself in 1668, he felt the flavour fell short of the “ravishing” descriptions he had read, having a “grateful acidity” but tasting more of “the Quince and the Melon” than anything more delicious. This illustrates Locke’s argument. The earliest European tasters of pineapple could only describe it by reference to other fruits. They could not summon up its full flavour either in words, or in the mouths of others.
The taste of pineapple, however, is only a part of its charm, as Fran Beauman’s engaging “biography” of the fruit amply shows (for once, the application of “biography” to an inanimate object seems justified). As soon as they saw it, men were wowed by the pineapple’s looks, its mathematically perfect golden shell and its outrageous green spikes. In 1535 the Spanish writer Oviedo confessed, “I do not suppose there is in the whole world any other [fruit] of so exquisite and lovely appearance”. In 1702, a Portuguese Franciscan compared the skin of the pineapple to a “brocade of pinecones” and the green top to a “royal crown”. The appearance of the pineapple, so bizarre it seemed to many observers as if it was artificial, would in turn inspire human artifice and architecture, notably the wonderfully absurd jutting stone pineapple at Dunmore Park in Stirlingshire, constructed some time after 1761, which this splendidly illustrated book contains a photograph of. From Georgian times onwards, there were pineapple gateposts and pineapple follies; pineapple mirrors and pineapple beds. Wedgwood made pineappleware, cream-coloured earthenware, knobbly like the body of a pineapple and glazed in green and yellow.
After this, I may never threaten anyone with the rough end of the pineapple again.