If there were a competition for the ingredient with the most scintillating folkloric history, the pomegranate should come out on top. This fall fruit’s lore is tied with sex, love, royalty, justice, imprisonment and gore. What food can serve up as many manners of intrigue in a single orb?
The first written reference of the fruit was in a romantic poem The Flower Song, composed around 1500 BC:
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.
The pomegranate’s early relationship to romance stems from a belief that the first pomegranate tree was planted by Aphrodite. The fruit has been linked with temptation, fertility and sex ever since, but in some unusual and occasionally not-so-romantic ways.
An early myth linked it with temptation in the legend of Persephone. The goddess inadvertently bound herself to Hades after enjoying plump pomegranate seeds the god of the underworld offered her as a form of seduction. Some historians believe the pomegranate, not the apple, was the tree of wisdom in the Garden of Eden, symbolically linking the fruit’s garnet flesh with temptation forevermore.
But if pomegranate’s early history as a symbol of temptation was intriguing, its link to fertility was even more powerful. According to Food and Feasting In Art, in one of the most shocking and disturbing pomegranate-laced legends, Bacchus was asked to take care of Acdestis, a rather violent and lustful young god. Bacchus was said to have gotten Acdestis drunk and, while the young god was passed out, had him strung up by his genitals. The blood seeping from his genitalia formed a pomegranate. The fruit was gifted to the nymph Nana and she promptly became pregnant.
Yet, as a symbol of fertility, most legends involving pomegranates use them in a hopeful way. In Turkey, after a wedding, the bride throws a fruit to the ground and the number of seeds that fall out represent the number of children the couple will produce. At one time Arab brides also smashed pomegranates to promote the birth of many children. According to the ominously named Plants of Life, Plants of Death, when pomegranates were first introduced to China, they were accompanied by their early symbolism. For that reason, it quickly became a custom that Chinese women desiring children offer pomegranates to the goddess of mercy. And according to chef and art historian Maite Rejon-Gomez of Art Bites, pomegranate is also a prominent symbol of fertility in Christian paintings.
But it is not from art or literature from which the average American draws their association between pomegranate and romance. It is from a dusty stretch of the San Joaquin Valley, a landlocked patch of scrubby, Californian farm country, that pretty much everything we know about pomegranate derives.
It is here that POM owns vast farmlands from which it produces its juice from the Wonderful variety of pomegranates. It could be said that Americans owe our love for pomegranate to POM and its innovative and aggressive outreach. It was a series of ads in 2010 that landed the company in the national spotlight—ads promoting pomegranate juice as aphrodisiac. The ads, including one with a scantily clad Aphrodite and another suggesting Eve tempted Adam with pomegranate juice, were eye-catching, surprisingly racy and did more than a little to imply that pomegranate juice is good for your sex life. A commentary on the ads in the LA Weekly newspaper suggested that Eve would have been better off seducing Adam with beer and pizza. But the author clearly hadn’t reviewed the millions of dollars worth of research POM funded to investigate the health benefits of Wonderful pomegranates.
True, research funded by a manufacturer on their product is always questionable. However, according to the International Journal of Impotence Research, a double blind study on men with mild to moderate erectile dysfunction showed improvement when treated with pomegranate juice. A non-POM funded study at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University found that daily doses of pomegranate juice had the potential of raising testosterone levels in both men and women. Testosterone can lead to improved mood and increased sexual desire in both sexes. Of course, the Edinburgh-based study was funded by pomegranate juice brand Pomegreat.
And although one might be hesitant to buy into research funded by the very people selling the product, centuries of global history offers a great indication that pomegranate brings more to the table than its crimson color and odd look. Beyond industry-funded research, nutritional science has revealed simple facts about the health benefits of pomegranates that those who came before us must have instinctively known. Pomegranates are among the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. They offer key ingredients to a satisfying sex life including fiber, water, potassium, manganese and folate (which supports fertility). Most remarkably, pomegranates are among the finest natural sources of those antioxidants that keep us looking and feeling youthful. The simple prospect of a fruit as a potential fountain of youth is an aphrodisiac to anyone.
Unscrewing a cap on a bottle of pomegranate juice is the easiest way to be seduced by the fruit’s uniquely sweet, acidic flavor. But removing pomegranate seeds (technically, they’re called arils), from the fruit is surprisingly simple if you know a few good tricks.
The bowl method is the quickest, although it can prove a little messy. Roll the whole fruit to loosen the arils. Score the hard flesh and tear the fruit in half. Turn the fruit seed side down in a large mixing bowl and tap the skin with a wooden spoon to release the arils. The water method is less messy but more labor intensive. Roll the fruit then score the skin lengthwise four times to mark it in quarters. Submerge the fruit in a large bowl of water and tear the quarters apart. Release the seeds with your fingers then drain the fruit thoroughly before using.
For a simple way to seduce someone with the aphrodisiac world’s superfood, Chef Maite Gomez-Rejon suggests using them in a filling for stuffed dates. She illustrates to her art history classes how the fruit of love might have been used in antiquity by making a mixture of pomegranate arils and chopped pistachios folded into mascapone with a pinch of salt and lemon zest. Simply stuff the dates with the seductive mixture and garnish with additional pomegranate arils.