Friday, December 21, 2007

A Perilous Affair: A Very Personal History of the Pomegranate

 id=This afternoon I stopped by El Corte Inglés and asked for a pomegranate at the fruit counter. It was the first time that I ever asked for one - a granada - in Spanish, and just articulating it made me smile. There is something a little more than magical about the pomegranate - but then again, I'm biased.

Tomorrow Se
ñor Gato and I are off on our Christmas holidays and I won't be able to blog until the New Year. So my Christmas offering then is a story that I wrote several years ago shortly after the Christmas holidays which was published by All Rights Reserved. Because I haven't yet packed and have no time to be creative - and I've had 3 too many glasses of rioja - I'll reproduce it here in its entirety. Yes it's long. And very self indulgent. But please, no need to thank me.

Happy Holidays!


Now that the bedlam of the holidays is but an awful memory, I can indulge myself by taking the time to honour and admire my annual yuletide pomegranate in silent and reverent awe. This year’s offering, a deviation from the traditional crimson pomegranate, is a small but robust yellow-ochre fruit speckled and freckled and slightly puckered by the Andalusian sun; it is a thing of wondrous beauty. But before I pop the slippery seeds into my mouth, suck on the pulp and feel each pip explode on my tongue, I am compelled to ruminate upon the fruit’s role in my life, the evolution or germination of our relationship. In the spirit of personal reflection which this season demands, I put aside my knife and stave off the sweetness that tempts me. In any case, this brief retrospection is far preferable to vows of dieting, exercising and calling my mother more often; in truth, I have gotten off easily.

Over the years, my experiences with the fruit have been diverse, but my earliest memories of the pomegranate were shaped by Greek mythology; as it turns out, not the most auspicious of beginnings. Horrified yet entranced, I read and reread the tale of Persephone and her abduction by Hades into hell where she reigned, unwillingly, as Queen of the Underworld. Her consumption of a handful of pomegranate seeds in a fit of hunger (perhaps a veiled allusion to the world’s first eating disorder) sealed her fate below ground; the number of months she was confined in the netherworld corresponded with the number of seeds she ate. The myth also served to explain the passing of the seasons: her captivity initiated winter while her return to the world of the living heralded the advent of spring. This tale of kidnapping, sexual assault, temptation, and marital strife undeservedly molded my earliest feelings about pomegranates. I stayed shy of them for many years; clearly, they were dangerous.

Little did I know that the “Punic apple” (as the Romans called it, hinting at a Carthaginian ancestry) was believed to be among the first fruits cultivated by humankind, probably in northern Iran or Turkey some six thousand years ago. A versatile fruit, the ancient Romans tanned its rind – a precursor of “pleather”, while its juice and seeds were rendered into ink and dye. A downright sexy fruit, it was utilized as a cosmetic (Cleopatra is rumoured to have used its seeds to render her ruby lips even rubier), the Greeks considered it a potent aphrodisiac and the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews (notably in the Song of Songs) used it allegorically in their love poetry. Its healing properties are well-documented across the ancient world: the buds, seeds, juice and rind of the pomegranate were boiled, pounded, mashed or brewed to treat, among other ailments, jaundice, inflamed eyes, dysentery, tapeworms, indigestion, diarrhea, bronchitis, and even nose bleeds. Today, scientists are considering it as a treatment for skin cancer.

For the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, the pomegranate tree was the quintessential “Tree of Life” and scholars have reasonably argued that this sinfully suggestive fruit was Eve’s offering to Adam in the Garden of Eden, not the Granny Smith. Because of its swollen pods (granata means ‘full of seeds’), it was considered a symbol of fertility, eternal life and healing, not only in the ancient world, but well into Renaissance times, and its image came to permeate the iconography of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Buddhists consider the pomegranate one of three blessed fruits. Its dual appearance, a desiccated dead-like exterior and moist fecund interior of blood-red seeds, emphasizes the fruit’s ying and yan temperament. It is a union of opposites: life and death, male and female, seed and womb – it is no wonder that my relationship with the fruit was never one-dimensional. In medieval representations, pomegranate seeds bled from the horns of unicorns, who in turn symbolized Christ, and the fruit was often included in portraits of the holy family – think Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate. But the pomegranate was not the prerogative of weighty religious propagandists: its dual nature is attested by its inclusion in the works of more “populist” writers and artists, the likes of Aesop, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rossetti, William Morris, Cezanne and Matisse.

Because of their protective hide-like skin, the fruit made excellent travelers; both pomegranates and their popularity spread swiftly along ancient caravan routes while the Conquistadors would bring them (along with smallpox and measles) to the New World. In China, pomegranates were thrown under the nuptial bed of newlyweds to vouchsafe a fruitful union, while Berber women in Morocco would prophecy the number of their offspring by dropping the fruit and counting the number of ejected seeds. Already possessing a crown (as the blossom end of the orb is known) it is understandable then that the pomegranate attained royal status after it was introduced into Spain by the Moors. Pomegranates would eventually grace the coat of arms of Catherine of Aragon, Henry the Eight’s Spanish wife. The city of Granada, the fruit’s namesake, boasts a regal avenue of pomegranate trees which the invaders planted and throughout the city, pomegranate finials top much of what can be topped with a finial.

La granada, le grenade, de granaatappel, der Granatapfel, il melograno – in any language the word rolls on the tongue as sweetly as a pomegranate seed. But the fruit’s dualism can be reflected in words as well as in imagery. The semi-precious stone “garnet” is a cognate of the Latin punica granatum because of its resemblance to the pomegranate seed. On a more sinister note, the French would lend its name (le grenade) to the eponymous explosive because it mirrored the fruit’s shape and was likewise filled with “seeds”, albeit a more lethal nature. This only confirms my childhood instincts that pomegranates are dangerous creatures.

Now, did I know any of this? – hardly. I was eight.

The pomegranate and I mutually kept our distance for the next few years until a rather questionable cocktail intervened and reintroduced the fruit into my life. When I was about eleven years old, I was deemed sufficiently adept in the kitchen to be honoured with the task of mixing a particular cocktail which my mother had recently ‘discovered’ – the Pink Lady. The Pink Lady has fallen out of favour from today’s compendia of cocktails and I am inclined to understand why – how can something so rosy and frothy and virginal compete with the likes of a Snake in the Pants or a Screaming Orgasm? But I digress. Although I still struggled with long division, I could, with skill and aplomb, shake gin (2 parts), lemon juice (1 part), heavy cream (1 part), grenadine (1 part) and ice in her Tupperware gravy maker, strain it into a cocktail glass and garnish it with a maraschino cherry. During these potable tutorials, my father explained to me that grenadine syrup was originally made from pomegranates although, sadly, most syrups now contain little or no fruit at all. O mores, o tempores! – why are the foamy pink cocktails always the ones to suffer most?

I reluctantly left childhood. I weighed the pros and cons of being a little less self-centred and became more aware of the physical world around me. This was especially so at Christmas when I came to realize that it wasn’t all about me – my parents received gifts as well. I began to notice the presence of a lumpy scarlet pomegranate in my mother’s Christmas stocking, a holiday offering from a very hip and urbane Santa Claus. The presence of fruit in Christmas stockings has lost its impact for most of us, but for my parents, who were born between the wars, the inclusion of oranges and other tropical fruits was an extravagance that we simply cannot appreciate. The pomegranate – no longer completely maligned in my mind – finally made an appearance in our household. No longer the stuff of legends or processed sugary syrups, but finally the real thing, an honest-to-goodness pomegranate: a swelling, dented, dappled globe with the leather weather-beaten face of an octogenarian. Neither pretty nor ugly, it was interesting-looking. Learning the secrets of the pomegranate requires effort but like everything else in life, the seeker who is pure of heart is ultimately rewarded. My father showed me how to open this seed-laden orb, how to score the sides of the fruit with a small paring knife, how not to cut too deeply into the “honeycombs”, how to remove the cone-shaped crown and pluck out the seeds which you eat. Over the years, my collective labours with a paring knife have caused more damage to my hands than to the fruit. I wonder now if, unconsciously, I was seeking to emulate the split and bloody flesh of the fruit with my self-inflicted gashes and slashes. Fortunately, my carving skills have improved (marginally) with age. It is an interesting theory and more appealing than admitting that either I am a spasmodic with cutlery or that pomegranates are capable of committing acts of vengeance upon those who cut them.

By the time I was an adult, we had established a truce, and I was more at ease with this enigmatic fruit (each pomegranate has exactly 840 seeds– why is fruit required to be so precise?). Pomegranates began to appear in my life outside of the holiday season and so I acknowledged their presence as permanent. When I was a graduate student working on an excavation in Upper Egypt, our dig house had invited over for cocktails colleagues from Chicago House – the residence and research centre for Egyptologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. For many of us, this was akin to inviting well-to-do relatives over for Christmas dinner; they boasted gracious air-conditioned living quarters, reception rooms and a well-stocked library. We didn’t have flush toilets. Although crates of beer were sourced from a speakeasy in Luxor, it was decided that we should offer an alternative – perhaps cocktails or aperitifs. The local hard liquor was unanimously deemed awful and pricey, and the only alternative was the indigenous (and equally awful and pricey) wine. I suggested a faux-sangria. Fruits were harvested from the souk and, atop the dighouse roof, we concocted a heady brew of a non-vintage Omar Khayyam (red) and the juices of pomegranates (the seeds squished by hand), tangerines, grapes, blood oranges, and grapefruit. Later that evening, under a bejeweled canopy of stars, our sangria was greedily quaffed as if it were the nectar of the gods. Pshaw – it was nectar.

Although the pomegranate and I got off on rather shaky ground, it has taken root, insinuated itself into my life for weal or woe; at the risk of anthropomorphizing a piece of fruit, it has gotten under my skin like a persistent but perhaps flawed suitor, its dual nature making it less than perfect in my eyes. They are no longer interesting-looking but objects of undeniable beauty. Recently, I have been harbouring a fantasy about pomegranates, perhaps representing the climax of our life-long affair; the tables have finally turned and now I pursue it. I want to embrace the fruit completely, to grow my own pomegranate tree so that, each morning, I can open my sun-bleached azure shutters (this is a fantasy), lean outside my geranium-trimmed window and pluck a fruit for breakfast. Surely this is every Canadian’s secret desire? In this reverie, my pomegranate tree is planted on the near side of my olive grove but close to the orange, lemon and almond trees. In order to realize this delusion, I have purchased from the Internet seeds for a Dwarf pomegranate tree. This takes some level of commitment, no? Sadly, it ends there; I am a poor lover. I have read the accompanying instructions and remain too dense to understand phrases like “breaking the dormancy of the seeds” – why does gardening sounds so violent? – or the term “gibberelic”, which I do not believe is really a word anyway.

It is now the dead of winter so I must excavate deep into my yellow pomegranate to find life. Ying and yan. I know that I will not grow a pomegranate tree this year; I am still too intimidated by the process and even if I am successful, our northerly climes guarantee that it will be nothing but a sun-starved house plant. A dwarf of a Dwarf. But I will take solace where I can find it: I have wandered the halls of hell with Persephone in my imagination, drunk the juice of the pomegranate in the quickening shadows of an Egyptian temple, found shade under its branches in Morocco, gaped at its image on medieval tapestries in Paris and delighted in its whimsical form on pottery in Granada. I know that next year there will be another pomegranate at Christmas, as does my mother; long after my father’s death, pomegranates still appear in her stockings. In the meantime, I have my own granada, perhaps plucked near the royal city of pomegranates, to savour. Did Eve offer Adam a pomegranate? I hope so. Was he wrong in taking it? Hell no.


Annie said...

I remember begging you to tell me stories on some family car trip and you telling me the story of Persephone's abduction. I also remember begging you to let me listen to Fat Bottomed Girls on your walkman, but I guess that's neither here nor there.

After reading this, I think that I can safely blame my yearly pomegranate binge on you. Thanks!

Me and my camera said...

Merry Christmas to all!