The Great Pineapple Myth

For some reason, there’s this widespread belief that Polynesians really love pineapples. When people think of Hawai’i, they think: palm trees, hula girls, and pineapples. When restaurants want to add an “island” flair to their food, they add a pineapple ring, or if it’s a Polynesian-themed drink, it has pineapple juice in it. Every time I’ve ever been at the Kahului or Honolulu airport, there are always lines of tourists proudly wielding atop their luggage,  giant cardboard crates of fresh, ripe pineapples.

Personally, I’ve eaten many a meal with other Pacific Islanders (Native Hawaiians, Tongans, Maori, Samoans,  Fijians and Chamorros to be exact) and nobody ever had pineapple on their plate. Not one. Nobody ever talked about wanting pineapples, or plans to have pineapple later. When you go to someone’s house and their family makes their traditional food, it is pretty much pineapple-free. Except for maybe if they like pineapple upside down cake, which is, of course,  a delicious American creation.

This is probably because pineapples are indigenous to South America, not Oceania. They were brought to Hawai’i in 1813 by Spanish plantation owners, who had previously set up  successful pineapple plantations in the Caribbean, especially in Cuba. They also brought pineapples to the Philippines, Guam and Zimbabwe.

Despite the pineapple being a global fruit (it is also grown in India and in English hothouses), it became “Hawaiianized” in the early 20th century, when James Dole began developing a pineapple empire. He earned the title of “Pineapple King” by creating a massive and successful ad campaign, as well as modernizing and expanding pineapple production and industrialization. In 1922, the Dole pineapple plantation on Lana’i was the largest plantation in the world, with over 200,000 acres of pineapples.

I should also point out that the Dole family in Hawai’i was also instrumental in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, which ended Native Hawaiian sovereignty through unconstitutional means.  With his conspirators, Samford Dole helped draft the Bayonet Constitution in 1887, which stripped the Hawaiian Kingdom of much of its authority. King Kalakaua was forced to sign it under intimidation, reportedly with guns pointed towards his head. More importantly, the Bayonet Constitution took voting rights from Native Hawaiians and “all Asian persons” in the years precipitating the overthrow.  After the overthrow  in 1893, a blatant theft of power orchestrated by descendants of American missionaries,  Samford Dole went on to appoint himself the first president of the forcibly imposed “Republic of Hawaii,” a term I put in quotes to highlight its irony. While Samford Dole was not a monarch, this certainly was not a republic.

Under the control of American businessmen, Hawai’i  continued to become a rich agricultural center for sugar and pineapples. These giant plantations were partly the result of the Great Mahele (mahele means “divide”), enacted in 1848 under the Hawaiian kingdom. This act made it possible to privately own land in Hawai’i (Native Hawaiians did not practice Western style land ownership), which ultimately resulted in the displacement of much the native population as American and European businessmen began purchasing much of the land. While the Hawaiian kingdom at the time had enacted the Mahele, it was done at the urging and persistence of the European and American royal advisers.

Additionally, I mention the denial of voting rights to “Asian persons” in the Bayonet constitution considering how much of the contemporary hotel culture in Hawai’i celebrates and romanticizes the “plantation style” aesthetic, which is a very perverse nostalgia. The Hawaiian plantation “heyday” is a time period in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants labored in hot, dusty fields as indentured workers, while their Native Hawaiian neighbors were prohibited by law from speaking their own language. Yes, the aesthetic is pretty, but its social and historical context is not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the pineapple. It can be very sweet and delicious (I do love pineapple upside down cake)  and in Victorian times, it was considered a charming symbol of welcome. But is it Hawaiian? Or Polynesian? Nope.

If you want to make your food island “island style,” put some kalo on it ;P


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