Sunday, September 20, 2009
As the weather slowly beings to turn towards autumn here on the east coast, I feel it is appropriate to embrace fall foods the same way I embrace the start of college football season and the return of my beloved Michigan Wolverines, fall fashion, and the fact that my apartment is actually a sleep-able temperature again.
No single food embodies seasonal change like the pomegranate. I am not speaking specifically to the flavor profile here--for that, I think butternut squash soup captures the earthy essence of the season--but rather, the mythology surrounding it.
It is a fairly well-know tale, but for those of you not well-versed in antiquity, the story begins with Demeter, goddess of the Harvest, and her lovely young daughter, Persephone. The two were frolicking about in a field somewhere when Hades, god of the dead, saw Persephone from afar and instantly fell in love with her. Knowing she would never go with him willingly, Hades decides to kidnap her the second she strayed out of sight of her mother.
When Demeter realized her daughter was gone, all living things on the earth wilted with her grief. Zeus could not leave earth and all living things on it to die, and so he commanded Hades to return Persephone. Yet while he and Hades argued, Persephone, pining for her mother and warm sunshine in the Underworld, cracked open a pomegranate and ate four seeds to remind herself of the fruit of the living. She did not know that it was the rule of the Fates that anyone who ate the food of the dead was condemned to stay in the Underworld. Fortunately, Zeus was able to negotiate a compromise with Hades, and Persephone return to her mother, yet she had to spend four months of every year with Hades, one for each seed.
While she is down there, Demeter and all the earth mourns her absence. And that, is why we have autumn and winter. So says the Greeks, anyway.
It is a great story, and fits the strangeness of the pomegranate itself, which has no "fruit flesh" to speak of. Instead, it is seeded and either the seeds are eaten as they are, or juiced. The first time I ever ate a pomegranate is burned in my brain, as when my mother went to slice it open, a trickle of dark red juice came out of the incision, and all I cold think was, "holy batman, the fruit is bleeding..." (I was seven, so "holy batman" was my expletive of choice not knowing any larger or more vicious vocabulary).
I love the seeds straight up and will snack on them late night while doing work or watching television. They are also great sprinkled over yogurt in the morning or over a big salad, and while the juice is too tart for me, I know plenty of folks who love it and drink it just for the tremendous health benefits (pomegranates apparently can help lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, is loaded with antioxidants, and even helps reduce dental plaque!). Heck, I've eve seem "pomegranate shampoo" at the Duane Reade. Thickened and sweetened, it is also the key ingredient in Grenadine syrup used in a multitude of cocktails.
It can sometimes be tricky to seed a pomegranate properly without squishing lots of seeds in the process and making a mess. I find that cutting the fruit in half and then submerging it in a bowl of water helps, as the seeds float up to the top and you don't have to jiggle them out as roughly. Remove the rind and strain and you're good to go!