When I was a child, every Thanksgiving my mom and I would make the drive from our Southern California home to visit my grandparents in Cottonwood. Aside from the game-playing and family fun, I looked forward to getting my fill of one of my favorite fruits: the pomegranate. My great-grandparents, who lived across the street from my grandparents, had several pomegranate trees so my grandma always had at least one big box of the sweet, juicy fruit. I remember often eating more than one a day, prying the ruby-like seeds, called arils, from the bitter membrane, liberally decorating my clothes with hard-to-get-out juice spots, and turning my fingernails purple.
I just learned today that November is National Pomegranate Month, so in honor of that, I decided to learn a bit more about one of my favorite fruits. If you like your food to come with a story, then pomegranates are the fruit for you.
Pomegranates are one of the earliest cultivated fruits, and can be traced back to 3000 B.C. They’re linked to health (scientists have discovered they’re full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that may help protect against heart disease, cancer and age-related maladies), fertility, prosperity and rebirth. Hoping for a second life, some ancient Egyptians, including King Tut, were buried with pomegranates.
However, my favorite pomegranate story is the Greek myth featuring Persephone, Hades and Demeter. In one version of the myth, Hades, god of the underworld, abducted beautiful Persephone to be his wife. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, the goddess in charge of crops and the harvest, didn’t know what had become of Persephone, and began to neglect her duties as she mourned and searched for her daughter. When crops withered and died, man begged Zeus to intervene and get Demeter back on the job. Zeus finally agreed, but said that if Persephone had eaten anything while she was in the underworld, she would be bound to return to Hades and the underworld for half the year (some versions of the myth say a third of the year). Alas, Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds offered to her by Hades and was thus bound to spend part of the year with him, and part of the year with her mother. Therefore, the pomegranate is one of Persephone’s symbols.
Pomegranates were originally grown in Persia (Iran) and other areas of the Middle East and Asia, but most of the pomegranates we eat here in the U.S. are probably grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Pomegranate season usually starts in October, with peak season in November and December. At my grocery store, they cost $2 each on sale (so far), so I don’t buy as many of them as I would like. (Oh for the days of eating them for free at my grandma’s!) I’ve always just eaten the fruit plain, but you can also add the seeds to yogurt, salads, ice cream or cereal, and there are a number of recipes that call for the addition of pomegranate seeds. When buying pomegranates, look for a fruit heavy for its size, with a smooth, bright skin. You can keep them in the fridge for up to two or three months.
Pomegranates might require a little patience and tenacity to eat, but to me they’re both a simple pleasure and an everyday adventure. Even though they seem expensive, they are cheaper than a bag of Doritos, and much healthier for me! Even if they do leave me with purple fingernails.
(Check out this video demonstration for a neater and easier way to get the seeds out.)
Note: The New Orleans travelogue will continue in future posts.