I've always thought of the pineapple as one of the most familiar symbols of Hawaii, even though it's a relatively recent arrival, and certainly not exclusive to our islands. If you were to play the old word-association game, where you say a word and the other person has to blurt out the first word that comes to mind, "pineapple" would always evoke the reply "Hawaii!"
Unless the other person lived in Marshall, Mich.
Marshall (pop. 7,167) is the county seat of Calhoun County and home to my son's future in-laws. When we met for the first time last summer, they surprised me with a pretty, pink souvenir T-shirt, with the words "Marshall, Michigan" and a big pineapple emblazoned on the front. They explained that the city of Marshall had adopted the pineapple as its emblem because the fruit is a universal symbol of hospitality. And because of the Honolulu House.
The house was built in 1960 by Abner Pratt, retired chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Pratt had served as U.S. consul to the Sandwich Islands from 1857 to 1859, and missed the islands so much he attempted to recreate his tropical lifestyle in his hometown of Marshall. At a cost of over 15,000 1860 dollars, more than $300,000 in today's world, Pratt built a mansion that resembled the one he'd left behind, near Honolulu Harbor, with an enormous lanai and a 30-foot-high observation tower. He called it the Honolulu House and furnished it with pineapple-shaped chandeliers, tropical murals, and Hawaiian artifacts including feather capes and tapa cloth. The New York Times described it as "the architectural equivalent of a four-rum cocktail served in a coconut."
Pratt even had island foods prepared for his houseguests and wore white linen suits throughout the long, harsh Midwestern winters. In March 1863, after braving the chilling rain in his island wardrobe, he contracted pneumonia and died. Alas, his love for Hawaii did him in - or perhaps he had brought back an artifact he shouldn't have.
The Honolulu House is now a museum, the biggest jewel in the crown of a town noted for its historical preservation and restoration. And pineapples. I didn't see any growing there, but I left Marshall with my new T-shirt and a gold pineapple pin from the Chamber of Commerce.
So now I have two pineapple T-shirts, both of which stir fond memories for me. The older one is a Maui Land & Pineapple shirt that no longer fits but will always have a place in my closet. Both my mom and my aunt spent their entire professional lives at Maui Pine. Mom retired as records coordinator and Auntie Sachan served as executive secretary to J. Walter Cameron and then to his son, Colin.
Before the Maui Pine executive office moved to the Kahului cannery location, I was a frequent visitor to the little Haliimaile office where Mom and Auntie worked. The haole bosses like Mr. Lydgate and Mr. Dubois reminded me of movie stars, distinguished and kindly gentlemen. My first horseback ride, not counting the little ponies at the County Fair, was atop Mr. DuBois' Appaloosa. The first gingerbread man I ever tasted was baked by Colin Cameron's wife, Margaret.
But my pineapple roots extend even further, to my grandmother's patch of pine in Haiku. Like a number of folks in the area, my dad's family owned a small field and sold the harvested fruit to the Libby or Haserot canneries. On weekends, my parents and aunts and uncles would don their pineapple-picking jeans and long-sleeved shirts to join my grandmother in the field. As a couple of 4-year-olds, my cousin and I would play in the bed of the old pickup while the grown-ups toiled away, returning to the truck periodically to empty their bulging sacks.
Once, after much begging, Mark and I got to ride to the cannery in the back of the truck, with half a load of freshly picked pine. It probably took less than 10 minutes, but it seemed to last for hours, as we quickly learned why people and pineapples usually ride in separate compartments. With every curve of the winding road, we were bombarded by giant rolling pincushions. We emerged from that adventure with a couple of bruises, lots of scratches, and a little more common sense.
So the choice of a big clumsy fruit with thick, poky skin and a thorny crown to represent hospitality seemed pretty strange to me. According to various Internet sites, the pineapple has been such a symbol to Europeans since the 15th century, after Christopher Columbus brought the exotic plant to Spain from what is now Guadeloupe.
I'll bet Columbus never rode in the back of the boat with the pineapples.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.