Pineapple upside-down cake—the backstory

Baking isn’t something I do regularly and, as I’ve mentioned before, my baking playlist is a short one, so I don’t know why I was suddenly overtaken by a desire for pineapple upside-down cake. Was it mentioned by a character in a novel I was reading? Did it pop into my head when I bought a whole pineapple last week? Or was it prompted by an ad for tinned pineapple spotted during the course of archival research?

The first time I made a pineapple upside-down cake was forever ago. I recall a student dinner party circa 1979. A bit past the cake’s heyday, but in grey, overcast England it still oozed tropical sophistication—laughable as that now seems.

This time though, I not only wanted to make pineapple upside-down cake, I wanted to know its origin story. There were questions and I wanted answers.

I had a hunch it all began in America. I followed that hunch and my investigation took me into the kitchens, newspapers and not-so-mean streets of suburbia. From there I followed leads in archives and databases. It soon became apparent that the upside-down cake had form, a history that predated its US appearance. From as far back as the Middle Ages, Europeans made cakes by pouring a basic batter over a layer of fruit and sugar, cooking the whole thing over a fire, then flipping it to serve. The tarte Tatin, an upside-down apple tart created by two sisters in the 1880s, is probably the best-known example of France’s many gâteaux renversés.

The term ‘upside-down cake’ appeared sometime in the early 1920s in regional America and featured plums and pome fruits rather than pineapple. Who was the first person to swap those for pineapple? The trail goes cold. But worth noting that although tinned pineapple was available in post World War I America, it was still a relatively exotic item.

In 1925 the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sponsored a contest calling for (canned) pineapple recipes. They received a flood of 60,000 submissions of which an alleged 2,500 were for pineapple upside-down cake. No surprise then that the winning entry was—yes, a pineapple upside-down cake! The company built a major advertising campaign around the winning recipe and by the mid-1930s pineapple upside-down cake was probably the most popular home-baked cake in America. It was easy. It was comfort food, it worked as a fundraiser or school fete offering. It was a potluck staple and a dinner party dessert.

Pineapple with Cockroaches by Maria Sibylla Merian, circa 1703

Cultivated pineapple (Ananas comosus) belongs to the family Bromeliaceae and it’s native to the Orinoco basin in South America. I’m imagining sun-filled days of heat, stagnant air and violent storms. Dragonflies cruising up and downriver. A litter of bougainvillea.

The first European to encounter a pineapple was Christopher Columbus in 1493. Apparently only a single pineapple made the return trip to Spain intact. The others rotted. Whether that story is true or apocryphal, who knows, but it is true that by the eighteenth-century pineapple pits were all the fashion among the well-to-do of Europe. Theatrical centrepieces for banquets and symbols of the hosts’ wealth and social standing.

Who first managed to grow a pineapple in a northern climate remains an open case. But the most likely contender is Dutch horticulturalist and woman-of-many-talents, Agneta Block in about 1685.

Pineapples were first introduced to Queensland by Lutheran missionaries who imported plants from India in 1838. Or maybe not. There’s evidence that the first Ananas comosus plants arrived in 1824 and five years later the Colonial Botanist counted thirty-four flourishing in Brisbane’s government garden.

Initially farmers serviced the market demand for fresh fruit, but as production blossomed, attention turned to processing. A retired sailor first canned pineapples in Malaysia in 1888 with exports from Singapore soon following. In Hawaii a large-scale canning industry developed thanks to the invention of a machine that could peel, core and slice pineapples automatically, and at speed.

Golden Circle began as a growers’ cooperative. The pineapple cannery commenced production in 1947. That same year, to celebrate the marriage of the future Queen Elizabeth, the Queensland State Government shipped five-hundred cases of tinned pineapple to London.The company’s advertising took a practical, recipe-based approach. Housewives were encouraged to keep their menfolk happy with canned pineapple—Glazed Pineapple & Sausages; Pineapple Atolls; Macaroni Cheese Tropical; Frozen Pineapple Crunch, and many more culinary gems. In the 1950s and 60s the Australian Women’s Weekly ran the brand’s colourful ads in just about every issue. Like this one from October 1964 which features the alarmingly-named ‘Busy Housewife Salad’.

Pineapples were the heart of Golden Circle, and the fruit remains important in Queensland. On the state’s Sunshine Coast you can visit The Big Pineapple, opened in 1971 and now a heritage-listed tourist attraction. More obliquely, I retrieved a lengthy article from the Queensland Agricultural Journal of August 1953. Primarily information about farming pineapples, it’s the specialist vocabulary that captures my attention. I’m talking tops, slips, suckers and butts, not to mention references to ‘undesirable types’ and ‘off-types [that] should be rogued from the plantation.’ Read that language and I can’t help but see animated pineapples creating havoc as cartoon characters do.

In the England of my childhood, pineapple came ringed or ready chunked—I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture. Now if you trawl the internet for pineapple upside-down cake recipes, many call for fresh pineapple. When I make my cake however, I opt for tinned pineapple and glacé cherries not fresh ones. Because ironically, they seem the more authentic choice. And anyway, Nigella says it’s OK to make this cake with canned fruit and who am I to argue with Nigella? The only alterations to the basic recipe that I consider are a teaspoon of cinnamon and nutmeg (as per a 1953 recipe from Pacific Islands Monthly) or adding ground ginger to the batter and dark rum to the caramel sauce as did a long-ago housemate’s Trinidadian mother.

I want the following word: splendour, splendour is fruit in all its succulence, fruit without sadness. I want vast distances.’ Whenever I read that quote from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, I always think of pineapple: fruit without sadness.

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