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Austin Chronicle Strange Fruit

The Mystical Allure of Pizza and Pineapple

By Tom Reavley

APRIL 3, 2000:  Pineapple and Pizza. The cardinal Ps -- two of my favorite foods, not to mention two foods which conspired to humiliate me as a child. Many things have changed over the years (Austin, for instance), but my yen for a hot slice of pepperoni with a side of syrup-laden pineapple has not. In all the unfortunate corners of the Earth that I have traversed, these two foods have been a comfort.

Indeed, both pizza and pineapple seem to be culturally significant across the globe. Pizza is at the forefront of a global capitalist economy. Whether you pay a ridiculous amount for a slice at Pizza Hut in Moscow, or eat a cheap imitation made by a street vendor in Dakaar, pizza is one of the few words that penetrates the language barrier. The pineapple, Ananas comosus, often symbolizes hospitality and warmth. In the New England colonies, it was a great honor to serve pineapple to one's guests. Extremely difficult to obtain, a fresh pineapple was often rented, purely for display, at dinner parties, and then resold the same day to a wealthier household. When I lived in Costa Rica, pineapple was the centerpiece of Sunday brunch. The father of my host family would drive an hour to the market early in the morning to haggle for the best fruit. By the time the rest of the household awoke, he would be back with a tropical bounty -- papaya, star fruit, spiny mamon chino, coconuts, and the star attraction -- La Pina. Its radiant yellow interior stood in sharp contrast to the gray and black skies of the rainy season. Succulent and uncompromising in its flamboyance, for me the pineapple embodied sensuality. The first time I discovered its exotic flavor, I was an inexperienced third grader. To my shame, I immediately developed an unhealthy obsession for it. For as a young, innocent child, a piece of pineapple became my forbidden fruit.

I was a very good boy. I took a liking to pizza early in life, as all Americans should. I loved to eat at pizza buffets, and my grandfather willingly indulged me when he visited town. Pepperoni, Porcini, Parmesan ... mmm, Pizza. Layers of cheese and the greasy blisters on the crust. Before I began to eat I would survey the slice bar from end to end, as Genghis Khan must have marveled at the vast steppe which became the heart of his empire. And, as a conqueror, I always grabbed as much as I could. Even now, I go way overboard on buffets. So far, my youthful metabolism has not given out on me.

Of course, as an adult, I now recognize the benefits of a balanced diet. I opt for vegetarian slices as often as meat, and I make an effort to eat salad whenever possible. But as a young lad, eating with my grandfather at pizza bars around town, "salad" was still a bad word. If my clouded memory serves me correctly, salad bars were only beginning to become fashionable. Sometime during Christmas break of third grade, at the salad bar in a pizza place, I was exposed for the first time to pineapple, in all of its tropical glory. Unfortunately, I was much too young to handle such a discovery in a responsible, moderate fashion.

Before reading on, it helps to explain the less hospitable traits of the pineapple, which no one bothered to warn me about. Pineapple originated in the heart of the Amazon. It was transplanted to other parts of the Americas through trade between tribes. In his fascinating Internet article, "Symbolism of the Pineapple," Hoag Levins (http://www.levins.com/pineapple.html) describes Columbus' first encounter with the fruit. His sailors, inspecting a deserted village, "came upon cook pots filled with human body parts. Nearby were piles of freshly gathered vegetables and fruits, including pineapples. The European sailors ate, enjoyed and recorded the curious new fruit." Cannibalism, the jungle, the irrational unknown of tribal cultures. The pineapple retains much of the untamed natural world. It harbors the lust of Dionysus, unchecked by civilization. When the Spaniards brought the fruit back to civilization, it carried echoes of its tribal past.

In Europe the pineapple acquired another negative association: exclusivity. Only royalty could sample such a rare grenade of natural sweetness. In a time when "the Renaissance Europe to which Columbus returned with his discoveries was a civilization largely bereft of common sweets," according to Levins, and the pineapple soon became "symbolic of royal privilege." Such exclusivity extended into the early 20th century. During World War I, two years before the Russian Revolution, the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote a scathing indictment of the world's capitalist elite who built a life of excess over the broken backs of the international proletariat: "You eat pineapples and chew on the slaves! Your last day is approaching, Bourgeoisie!" Ten years later, Mayakovsky claimed that Bolshevik troops recited his poem as they stormed the Winter Palace. Whether or not you share the poet's Marxist philosophy, the symbolism of the pineapple is irrefutable.

Indeed, my first bite turned me into a little Napoleon. After all, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet. So everything I surveyed, under heat lamp or over ice, was mine for the taking. The ananas was like pure gold. As I sat down and swallowed it, faint ancestral memories rippled through my young brain. I forgot about everything else, including my pizza. My grandfather and I were seated in a window booth. The poor old man, who loved me, didn't discern the telltale signs of simultaneous addiction. On the false pretense of going to the bathroom, I left him at the table and bolted for the salad bar. Finding the brilliant slices amidst the dull hues of green was no problem. The primordial pineapple lay diced and glistening, deep within a plastic trough. It beckoned me. Modern social moorings melted as I eased my fingers around a piece. It was in my mouth before anyone noticed. On the next several salad bar raids, I was so insatiable that I ignored the tongs someone had placed there. In some corner of my mind, I knew that I was doing something wrong. I made six fruitful sorties. No one seemed to care.

Until the last lap, when a large man clamped down on my arm. His grip was so tight, it took all my strength not to spit out the evidence.

"No more!" he bellowed.

"But I didn't ..."

"No more! It's dirty. The health department could close us down for this. You should be ashamed -- this is a public restaurant!" I tried not to cry as he berated me. I had defied social order. Like a terrorist, I waged germ warfare on innocent diners. I began to feel ashamed. "No more! And don't ever come back here."

I wandered back to our table with tears hanging off my nose. My grandfather, bless him, was oblivious. I could not go on living if he found out. It would have shattered his image of me: a well-behaved child who met with widespread adult approval. What if he wanted to come back tomorrow? How could I explain that I wasn't allowed in? For a sensitive child, who depended greatly on outside opinion, banishment from my favorite restaurant was an unduly heavy sentence. In the ensuing years, I spent countless hours trying to regain my lost social standing -- Boy Scouts, volunteer work, school achievements -- I worked long and hard. Eventually, I forgot the whole incident.

Despite all the changes in Austin, including the recent destruction of places where I marked the milestones of youth, the infamous pizza parlor which banned me still stands. Recently, my friends proposed going there for happy hour. The invitation triggered old, suppressed memories. I eventually had to explain to them why a pizza buffet bothered me so much. What if the manager recognizes me? What if the marinated pineapple, in that same infernal trough, makes me lose control? Some of my friends thought it was a joke. I still eat pizza, and even pineapple. As a stable, mature adult, it has no effect on me. But, my friends, I shall never return to that pizza joint, where I bartered away my innocence for a slice of fruit.

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