Illustration by Mark Ghee Lord Galacgac

The pineapple. It’s neither a pine nor an apple. It’s prickly on the outside, golden and luscious on the inside. When it comes down to it, the pineapple is a contradiction in terms. And it’s synonymous with Hawai‘i. Whether you’re in Honolulu or Hilo, you’re bound to see pineapples plastered on T-shirts or dancing across the hoods of tour buses. It’s a décor staple in plantation-style homes and a go-to garnish for poolside cocktails. There’s the Pineapple Express, a meteorological phenomenon characterized by subtropical moisture and heavy rains—or, depending on who you ask, the plotline of a stoner flick—universally associated with the Hawaiian Islands. And then there’s the “Hawaiian-style” pizza (but let’s not get started on that one).

It seems that the fruit has become the islands’ unofficial mascot. But when you really think about it, it’s a bit odd that the pineapple was crowned the de facto state fruit of Hawai‘i, given its contentious social and ecological history in the isles. There are plenty of other qualified candidates: the coconut, the papaya, the mango, and—if you’re a stickler for authenticity—the mountain apple, which is one of Hawai‘i’s only indigenous fruits. So what gives?

Botanists and historians say the pineapple (or Ananas comosus, if you want to get scientific) originated thousands of miles away in South America, most likely near present-day Brazil. It was a mainstay in South America long before the Europeans arrived. Then Christopher Columbus and his crew swept into the New World, stumbled across the tangy fruit, and true to form, claimed it as their own. The Spaniards named their botanical “discovery” the piña, because it bore a striking resemblance to an oversized pinecone. They loaded it onto their ships and took it home to Spain. That’s when the pineapple went mainstream: Europe’s rich and famous developed a taste for the rare and exotic fruit and had it cultivated in hot houses. Because it was such a coveted commodity to both give and receive, the A-list fruit came to symbolize extravagant hospitality in both the Old World and the New World.

Hula4_7-01 (1)So how did the pineapple go from lounging in European hot houses to achieving celebrity status in Hawai‘i? The exact date of the pineapple’s debut in the islands is not known, but some historians say it probably arrived around 1770. By the early 1900s, pineapple barons like James Drummond Dole, who became known as “The Pineapple King,” had an ambitious goal: to see canned pineapple on shelves in every grocery store across the country. Dole’s earlier move to Hawai‘i was set into motion when his cousin, sugar tycoon Sanford B. Dole, led the coup d‘état against Queen Lili‘uokalani in 1893 and was named president of the new provincial government. Inspired, a young James Dole headed to the islands and purchased a 60-acre homestead on O‘ahu. He experimented with a number of cash crops, and after some trial and error, settled on pineapple.

Riding the tide of the industrial revolution, pineapple production in Hawai‘i quickly flourished, with spiky rows of pineapple cropping up across the state. Dole eventually ponied up for an innovative new machine that was a triple threat: It would skin, core, and then slice the fruit (previously, workers were doing this by hand). Many of his contemporaries followed suit. And just like that, the prickly fruit became a commercial crop, putting Hawai‘i back on the map as an agricultural powerhouse. By the 1930s, Hawai‘i was home to the world’s largest canneries and had established itself as the global leader in pineapple production.

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According to the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, for many agricultural workers, joining the pineapple workforce was the preferable alternative to sugar. Companies like Dole enticed laborers away from the sugarcane fields, promising higher wages and better working conditions. It may have been a slight upgrade, but it still wasn’t a walk in the park: Workers planted pineapples by hand and harvested them into lug boxes, which were then loaded onto trucks to be processed at the designated cannery. Pesticides and fertilizers were used extensively, which not only posed a health risk to plantation workers but also led to soil contamination and agricultural runoff.

As workers labored under a blazing sun, a marketing team was developing a strategic branding campaign for the export-based industry. It wasn’t long before Hawai‘i’s signature fruit graced the covers of glossy travel brochures, magazines, posters, packaging materials—just about anything related to the islands. Today, the pineapple is cemented in our collective consciousness as a symbol of Hawaiian hospitality, and like it or not, it’s here to stay—unlike the industry itself.

Hawai‘i’s pineapple glory days began to fade in the 1980s, when Dole Food Company and Del Monte closed up shop and moved overseas. The final nail in the coffin for the withering industry came in 2009, when Maui Land & Pineapple announced it would shut down its operations. Most of the once-thriving fields now lie fallow, and canneries have been converted to museums and shopping malls (a small portion of pineapple land is now occupied by seed companies, in essence trading one form of industrial agriculture for another). The state currently produces only 10 percent of the world’s pineapple, and there are just a handful of small-scale pineapple operations left. Only two of those would be classified as major pineapple operations, according to Doug MacCluer, former vice president of Maui Pineapple Company. As for a pineapple renaissance in Hawai‘i, it’s unlikely. “No operation can make it without a profit,” says MacCluer. “The tourist industry is just more profitable.”

Today, the bulk of pineapple production has slowly shifted to Asia and Central America, where the fruit is cheaper to produce. But while it may be a shadow of its former self, the pineapple lives on in the islands as the adopted symbol of perceived happiness in our tropical paradise. I have the T-shirt to prove it.