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22 may 2017

Pomegranates are quite tasty, but they have always seemed to me not worth all the trouble.

In his global history of the fruit, Damien Stone suggests an elegant technique to get at the "arils," the little red edible bits. Slice off the very top of a pomegranate, score the sides, hold the thing underwater, break it apart, and scoop out the arils with your fingers, letting them sink. The skin and pulp will float; skim them off, drain your arils, and you're good to go.

Except even then, the fun-to-grist ratio of pomegranate arils can be minimal. And while you're chomping through the grainy seeds, you run the risk of staining anything nearby with their juice. The entire plant is renowned for the dyes that you can make from various parts of it, and many a pomegranate fan has dyed tablecloths and napkins inadvertently just by trying to eat a little bit of the fruit.

Perhaps this is why most of Stone's Pomegranate is taken up with pomegranate symbolism instead of pomegranate cuisine. They are intriguing, difficult, idiosyncratic fruits, relatively isolated in botanical terms. Their outsides don't offer much of a clue to their insides. As Stone catalogues, they are emblematic of bounty (one fruit, technically a berry, contains hundreds of arils). Thus, they symbolize fertility, but also death and regeneration. As seedy sacks, they represent the male; as globes that split open to reveal blood-red riches, they represent the female; often they seem to stand for both at once, in a troubling, dreamlike way. The symbolic sway of the pomegranate crosses eras and cultures in fascinating ways, and extends from old-master art into postmodern feminist motifs. Stone offers truly original essays on how people have thought, and created, with pomegranates.

Pomegranates like warm, arid regions, and are native to Persia. They have spread around the drier regions of Asia and North Africa, from China to Spain – tracking, horticulturally, the cultural progress of Islam, where they figure in much legend and symbology. But the pomegranate is far older than Islam, figuring in art from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt. Tutankhamen's tomb held a delicate silver vessel in the shape of a pomegranate, one of the more austere and beautiful of its treasures.

Stone looks at the importance of the pomegranate to Jewish culture, to Granada in Spain, to Armenia. He reflects on the career of Gregory Levin, an eminent researcher who turned orchards in Soviet Turkmenistan into the world's premier pomegranate facilities, only to see them trashed by post-Soviet policies. He follows the pomegranate to California, where it flourishes. We have them in Texas – the first pomegranate tree I ever saw was in Austin. Heck, we even have one in our front yard. Like many smaller varieties, ours is grown mostly for its flowers, but it does set tiny fruit.

But as I said, Stone does not delve much into the use people have made of pomegranates. Most are just eaten out of hand, laboriously, or juiced up and drunk. Stone includes recipes for various drinks, for salads, for pomegranate cobbler. One dish, called kolliva, is a Greek funerary specialty: pomegranates are associated with death as well as sex, as in the myth of Persephone.

In the here and now, we are more likely to associate pomegranates with cheating death. Stone comments briefly on the just-crested wave of interest in pomegranates as the superfood that will anti-oxidant us into our second centuries. It's reasonable to think that pomegranates are good food, full of fiber and vitamins. It's less reasonable to conclude that they are a panacea, especially since humans have been eating them for millennia without any decrease in our overall 100% mortality rate.

Stone, Damien. Pomegranate: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2017.