Here’s an historical question you can really sink your teeth into: What sorts of fruits did the denizens of early Charleston eat?
The short answer is this: As early as the 1670s, Charlestonians had access to a surprising variety of fruits, from the exotic to the mundane, and the import-export trade in fruit was once an important and colorful part of our local economy.
Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of references to various fruits in the newspapers and other documents from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Charleston, but only recently did I begin to look at the topic more seriously. Having now made a more systematic (but not exhaustive) search, I’ve compiled a list of approximately four dozen types of fruit found in the early markets of our port city. Within that number we can make several divisions to reflect the geographical origins of these fruits, as well as the different market routes that brought them to Charleston. The indigenous population introduced early European colonists to a number of native fruits, but the majority of the fruits enjoyed in early Charleston were familiar tastes transplanted from the Old World. Perhaps the most interesting part of this story, however, is the variety of “exotic” fruits that came to our port by way of our extensive trade connections with the English, French, and Spanish territories in the West Indies.
With these three divisions in mind, let’s make a quick list of the fruits known to have been available in Charleston between the 1670s and the 1850s:
muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia), pawpaw (Asimina triloba), American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), blueberry (genus Vaccinium), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), fig (Ficus carica), plum (Prunus angustifolia), black cherry (Prunus serotina), red mulberry (Morus rubra), blackberry (genus Rubus), Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), and cranberry (imported from New England).
Old World Fruits:
peach, nectarine, apple, pear, orange (both sweet “China” and sour “Seville”), quince, lemon, lime, citron, cantaloupe, muskmelon, watermelon, apricot, prune, currant, cherry, raspberry, pomegranate, raisins (generic dried grapes), Alpine strawberry, and perhaps medlar (a.k.a. Japanese plum, a.k.a. loquat).
West Indian Fruits:
pineapple, banana, plantain, papaya, mango, guava, alligator pears (avocado), and both cocoa (cacao) and “cocoa nut” (coconut).
These three divisions are merely an organizational convenience intended to help us understand the point of origin from which these fruit came to market in Charleston. Once the town and the colony of South Carolina became established, however, the residents began planting, trading, and consuming them without the least regard to their origins. The resulting culinary traditions, or “foodways,” that took root in the Lowcountry reflect both local preferences for certain fruits and the variable availability of fruits in our seasonal markets. By looking at the social history of certain fruits, we can also gain deeper insight into our community’s cultural heritage.
For example, the early colonists and promoters of South Carolina believed that our subtropical climate might sustain a thriving trade in oranges. Along with rice, local planters sowed thousands of orange seeds in the hopes that the colony could produce enough fruit to capture a large share of the very profitable orange trade in Europe and beyond. Early letters from Lowcountry planters writing back to England brag of a massive orange planting effort, and local newspaper advertisements from the 1730s onward frequently mention plantation tracts for sale on which are found hundreds and even thousands of fruit-bearing orange trees. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, it was painfully clear to local planters that our climate was just a bit too cool to cultivate oranges on a commercial scale. Although few remember the sanguine hopes that South Carolina would become known as an orange colony, the vestiges of this horticultural effort remain on our landscape in place names such as Orange Street, Orange Grove Road, and Orangeburg.
Consider also the social history of the plantain. Few Charleston historians have mentioned the plantain—a quintessentially Caribbean fruit—among the foodways of this community, but it was once a common taste in the Lowcountry. Numerous advertisements printed in the local newspapers from the colonial era to the Civil War attest to the regular importation of this starchy, banana-like fruit from the Bahamas, Jamaica, and even Cuba. In those island nations, we know that the plantain formed an important part of the diet of enslaved people and free people of color, and the same was probably true here in Charleston as well.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, strawberries and blackberries were grown on large farms on the suburban “neck” of the Charleston peninsula and sent to New York markets in refrigerated ships. Before and after the Civil War, most of the berry harvesting was done by black women, and this trade represented an important source of employment for them during the years of Reconstruction.
Finally, I’ll mention the pineapple, the fruit that many locals describe as Charleston’s traditional symbol of hospitality. As a skeptic, I’m always hesitant to believe such folklore without documentary proof, but in this case there is a kernel of truth behind the legend. The pineapple was unknown in the Old World until early explorers brought samples back from the Caribbean and South America. Europeans fell in love with the delicious fruit, of course, but it was nearly impossible for them to obtain “fresh” samples and the tropical plant was difficult to grow in temperate climates. When England’s royal gardener was able to cultivate a fruit-bearing pineapple plant in that cool country, therefore, it was considered a news story worthy of royal attention. Sometime in the late 1670s—contemporary with the early years of the Carolina colony—King Charles II had his portrait painted receiving a pineapple from John Rose, his royal gardener.
The message implied in this artistic presentation was heard in Charleston and throughout the English-speaking realm: the rare, delicious pineapple was a gift fit for a king. The pineapple trade flowed from the Caribbean into early Charleston, where they represented a luxurious treat for newcomers unfamiliar with the prickly fruit. In a letter to her family back home in January 1725, for example, Margaret Kennett, a young English woman tending a shop on Charleston’s East Bay Street, described the novel taste of the West-Indian pineapple as “inexpressibly fine.” What better way to welcome visitors to our port city than to offer a fruity gift once reserved for royal tastes?
If you’d like to learn more about the fruit history of Charleston, please join me for a FREE program titled:
A Fruit-Filled History of Charleston
Wednesday, August 26th at 6 p.m.
Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.
For more information, contact Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.