I was but 6 or 7 years old when our father, Big Ed, brought home a crumpled paper sack containing six red applelike fruits. He took each one out of the bag as if it were a rare treasure and lined them up on the kitchen table so we could have a look. They were dark red like Ida Red apples or the very best Black Gilliflowers. But unlike apples, they stood upside down, with the stem ends on the bottom and a fringed protrusion on top that looked something like a crown. Father said we would have to wait until after our supper for the special treat, when we could savor the essence of what he called Chinese apples. Needless to say, we gobbled down our dinner.
Before the meal was over, Father started to tell us about Chinese apples. He said that pharaohs had been buried with them and that paintings depicted them -- even the famous Unicorn Tapestry has the captured unicorn sitting under a pomegranate tree. But the best-known story, he said, was that of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter who was abducted and carried off to the underworld by the Greek god Hades. She was told not to touch anything, but lured by the beauty of the pomegranate, she ate some of its seeds, thus sealing her fate and keeping her in the underworld for part of each year.
Father knew pomegranates were not native to China; rather, they originated in Persia and were transported to China, India, Spain, and the New World. The Chinese believed, as did the Greeks, that the juice of the fruit prolonged life and warded off disease.
Finally, we were given a lesson in how to open and eat a pomegranate. None of us expected the hundreds of rubylike seeds of outrageous beauty to pop out from the white fleshy membranes as Father peeled back the skin.
His method was simple and neat, and I follow it to this day: Spread a newspaper on the table; with a stainless-steel knife, cut off the crown of the fruit, being careful not to puncture any of the seeds. Use the point of the knife to pierce through the exact center of the fruit, and wiggle the knife to break the pomegranate where it naturally divides. Once the halves are separated, peel the membranes to release the seeds, catching them in a bowl or eating them as you go. Some people eat the seeds whole, but I spit out their pulpy centers. If your hands become stained, rub them with a cut lemon to easily remove any redness.
Since eating my first pomegranate, I have been enamored with this wonderful fruit and wait with anticipation each year for the harvest. Pomegranates have been grown in the United States since about 1792, although their popularity has waxed and waned. Today, however, growers are certain that the healthful properties of the pomegranate -- a high concentration of polyphenols (antioxidants), along with potassium, vitamin C, no fat, no cholesterol, and only 105 calories -- will make the fruit as much in demand now as it was in the ancient world.
Everyone in my house loves to munch on the seeds. I have even tried eating a pomegranate in bed, but I advise against it. I was being very, very meticulous, watching a movie at the same time, and had almost finished when my cat Teeny decided to jump up on me. A mess ensued, as seeds scattered and juice stained the white linen sheets. Never again! Having banned pomegranates from the bedroom, I now enjoy eating this fruit in the kitchen, thinking about its many possibilities -- the juice is delicious in homemade grenadine syrup (equal parts juice and sugar, simmered until thick and clear), in jelly (4 cups juice, 7 1/2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, and 1 package pectin), in ice cream or sorbet, and in margaritas (substitute pomegranate juice for some of the lime juice).
There are all sorts of excellent choices at the grocery store: Granada, Ruby Red, Foothill Early, Wonderful. Try one first -- if you enjoy it, buy more from the same crop. Whatever you choose to call the pomegranate -- Punica granatum, Chinese apple, or seeded apple -- treat yourself today.