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First taste

SOME events remain etched in thought, sometimes active, often dormant. They lie waiting to be recollected at a special moment. For example, I have always supposed that lots of people take eating lobster, or Italian food, or caviar, for granted. Not so in my case: I was in my 40th year before I tasted lobster. My wife now makes great Italian food, but caviar has yet to become part of my regular diet!

Perhaps man does not live by truffles alone, but recently one of those distant memories surfaced: the time when I considered a pineapple, or rather a small slice of it, rarer than a moon rock.

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As youngsters, my friends and I usually spent Saturday mornings visiting the local market, picking up wooden crates to sell for firewood, or pickets for fences.

One day, as we were leaving for home, laden with the usual pile of crates, we heard a typical Cockney voice carry over the hubbub of the crowded marketplace. ``Come on, nah, getcha pineapple 'ere. Luvly pineapple, just like before the war. Awl fresh. A tanner a slice.''

At first, I was drawn to the monetary amount. What single item would cost a tanner? It seemed a lot for a slice of anything.

Following the voice, we found on display slices of the palest, most anemic-looking substance any of us had every seen. The costermonger eyed us momentarily, then decided he might have a potential customer or two.

``Come on nah, lads. I bet none of yer 'ave ever tasted pineapple, 'ave yer?'' Our heads shook in unison.

``Well, then, 'ere's yer big charnce. Only a tanner, and you can taste one of the fruits of 'is Majesty's Empire, all the way from Sahf Africa.''

We looked from the costermonger's tanned, lined face and sharp eyes, content to let him continue talking, then moved away.

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Wooden crates we knew about, but these pineapple things were something else. We'd only heard of their existence. Johnny, the skeptic, said they were probably fake, like the plaster chickens Knapman the butcher put in his window to give an appearance of prewar abundance. But curiosity piqued, we found ourselves back at the stall.

``'Ullo, boys, back agin, are we? I tell yer, you ain't likely to every see a pineapple for anuvver six years, if you don't take yer charnces nah. Only one ship came in, and I bought the lot.''

Again, we withdrew. Six years? Now time had been added to economics. We hurriedly searched our pockets and came up a penny short. Once more we approached the barrow. ``Come on nah, boys. Make up yer minds. Ya wanna piece or not?''

``D'ja 'ave a piece for fivepence?'' said Terry, hand clutched tight around our entire fortunes. The barker's eyes glittered. ``Fivepence? I ain't gonna make much of a living like that, am I?'' He looked at us all carefully, then screwed up his face as though making a momentous decision. ``Well, of course, every piece 'ere is werf a tanner - lessee nah ...'' and he carefully looked over the spread of pineapple slices. ``'Ere's a nice piece, but I'd be losing money on it, of course, if I let it go for less than the regular price.''

He seemed to be exploiting our weakness for the exotic. He made a ``Y'' of his thumb and index finger to cup his chin, pulling his mouth to one side. Then, ``You haven't done anything bad lately, have you?'' We frantically shook our heads. ``OK, seeing as you look like nice kids, I'll make a special allowance.''

We counted the pennies into his hand, and they disappeared into the black leather bag around his waist. Then, reaching back in a ceremonious gesture, he handed over a slice of pale fruit on a piece of wax paper.

Bill, being the largest shareholder, had the honor of taking the slice. He held it in his hand, and we all stared at it. ``Go on, then, Bill, see what it tastes like.'' Our rapt faces searched his. Would he like it or not?

Bill gingerly nipped a small piece from the stringy pulp and for a moment, he registered nothing on his face. Then his lips puckered and he screwed up his face. ``Oooh, it's real tangy,'' he said. All our faces followed suit as we tasted, in turn, the soft fruit. That first taste of pineapple has lingered on the tip of my tongue and my memory ever since, always to be remembered and recalled.

So when my daughter returned from a shopping trip with a Kiwi fruit and said she had paid 75 cents for the small fruit, my tolerance for such an expenditure was intact. I remembered that gray day in London and the sad-looking piece of pineapple lying there.

In these sophisticated days, now that I am partaking of mangoes, and pomegranates, and papaya as part of my fruit fare, I wonder what all the fuss was about an overpriced piece of pineapple.

First tastes, like first loves and first fruits, are never truly forgotten. They remain deep in our memories, often unthought of and dormant until some special thought or person brings them to the surface. But they never disappear.

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