Beijing, 4 May 2013
Spring is also pineapple time in Beijing. Actually, pineapples play the function of daffodils here. They are the harbinger of Spring. Their arrival tells you that help is on the way, that the temperatures will soon be going up and you can soon start shedding your heavy clothes.
All of a sudden, in lateish March, a swarm of people, mostly migrant workers as far as I can tell, appear on every street corner with a mobile table top. Here is a photo of the young lad who has staked out the corner just south of the bridge over the canal, which I cross every day to go to work.
The pineapple sellers use the tables to prepare their pineapples for sale. Because they don’t just sell you a pineapple – if you want that, go to your local supermarket. They will peel their pineapples, carve out the eyes (I take the term from potatoes; that is the closest equivalent I can think of)
and sell them to you so prepared, lovely little yellow sculptures with whorls etched deeply into their surfaces.
In this last photo, the pineapple is shown off in a posh display case. In Beijing, as the sharp-eyed reader will observe in the first photo, the pineapple sellers normally put their product in cheap plastic bags – often yellow, which accentuates the yellowness of the pineapple’s flesh; a clever little piece of marketing. If you want, the sellers will go one step further and cut the pineapple up so that you can eat it as you walk along (they will thoughtfully provide you a thin, sharpened stick with which to spear the pineapple chunks).
My first meeting with the pineapple, when I was young, was out of a can, cored and cut into circular slices.
I have since learned that before the advent of large-scale refrigeration infrastructure, canning was the only way of transporting pineapple over long distances because pineapple doesn’t ripen if harvested green. A worthy reason, no doubt, but I was not impressed. I found canned pineapple cloyingly sweet and suspiciously soft. At some point, I discovered fresh pineapple; I think it was early in our marriage, when my wife brought one back from the supermarket. What a revelation! Firm flesh, sweetness with a slightly acidic taste which left a tingle in the mouth … a completely different experience. Since then, I have not touched the canned variety if I can possible avoid it.
I read that pineapple canning was developed in Hawaii. Which clicks a memory of a film, seen late at night on the TV and with Charlton Heston as the main protagonist. A delve through IMDb reveals that the film in question was The Hawaiians.
Apart from vaguely recalling that the film had to do with the development of the pineapple industry in Hawaii, I remember two scenes quite well. One is a visit by Heston to an island used as a leper colony; anyone who has read the bible cannot but be aware of the terrible plight meted out to lepers, and I was shocked by the idea that still in the 19th Century people could just be abandoned on an island because they had leprosy. The second scene I remember is the heroine, a Chinese woman who had emigrated to Hawaii and whose common-law husband it was who had been banished to the leper island, standing at his grave recounting to him news of the family. I found that very touching – and saw the same scene being re-enacted just a month or so ago, when we visited a local cemetery during the tomb sweeping holiday!
Hawaii may have developed the industry but it no longer leads it. As in all things now, China is among the largest producers of pineapples in the world, growing some 1.5 million tonnes a year (for those readers who are, like me, interested in useless information, Thailand is currently the biggest producer, standing at 2.6 million tonnes annually). Here is a picture of a pineapple field in Guandong province.
The fruits look suspiciously bright, due no doubt to the photo having been doctored. Which – in a country of where watermelons have been known to explode in the fields because of overuse of growth-enhancing chemicals – made me wonder if the pineapple fruit itself is doctored. A little search confirmed my worst suspicions! Stuff called gibberellic acid is used to “enhance fruit growth”. Gibberellic acid! The name itself is a horror, whose ingestion I have no doubt will reduce me to a gibbering wreck. And it’s no good that an official review by the US Environmental Protection Agency soothingly concludes that “the uses of Gibberellic Acids, as currently registered, will not cause unreasonable risk to humans or the environment”. The weasel words are there: “as currently registered”. Here, where farmers just chuck stuff on their fields with wild abandon, that is a meaningless cautionary clause. This Gibberellic acid is a hormone! Lord knows what will happen to me now …
What is the world coming to, that you can’t eat anything without the nagging doubt in your mind that if you don’t die you will turn into some sort of extraterrestrial being?
Pineapple seller: my picture
Pineapple peeled: http://jblankenagel.net/IMGP1648.JPG
Pineapple unprepared and prepared: http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/sapsiwai/sapsiwai0512/sapsiwai051200027/286517-ananas-entier-au-dos-et-sculpte-dans-l-avant.jpg
Pineapple prepared-01: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pineapple_prepared_01.jpg
Canned pineapple: http://agriseafood.webs.com/Canned-Pineapple.jpg
The Hawaiians movie poster: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f3/Poster_of_the_movie_The_Hawaiians.jpg
Pineapples in Guandong: http://www.chinapictorial.com.cn/en/destination/images/attachement/jpg/site133/20120705/00247e701cc9115f7f8455.JPG