Bloody red fruit plays key role in Greek myth, modern customs

October 9, 2013

Nina Barrett

Once on a New Year’s Eve, I happened to be at Taxim, a Greek restaurant in Wicker Park. At midnight, chef David Schneider came striding out of the kitchen and hurled a pomegranate to the floor, where it exploded like a blood-red bomb.

“The juice and seeds spread everywhere,” Schneider said. “And I always have someone who’s not suspecting it, and they get a little of the juice on them, and I tell them, (chuckles) ‘This is good luck, you’ll have a good New Year!’”

Today, most of us know pomegranates for their supposedly powerful antioxidant properties. But if you look back in time, for Greeks as far back as Homer’s day, those little ruby juice pouches inside the fruit have had even more powerful properties, Schneider said.

Persephone was chosen for her beauty by Hades to join her in the Underworld as his wife, and he kidnapped her away. Her mother, Demeter, was the goddess of grain and the harvest. Her grief made the whole Earth grow cold and barren. Mankind was on the verge of starving to death.

But then Zeus, who saw that he was about to lose his entire human constituency, gave in and ordered Hades to give Persephone back.

“But he enticed her to eat a little pomegranate prior to her departure from Hades,” Schneider said.

Zeus said if Persephone had eaten anything while in the Underworld, she’d have to stay down there as the wife of Hades forever. But since in this case it had only been a few seeds of the pomegranate, she would only have to go back a few months of every year.

Since then, every time she goes back for another Date from Hell, her mother gets a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder and makes the earth go barren, which we call: winter.

To this day, Schneider said, the pomegranate continues to play all kinds of symbolic roles for Greeks.

“Modern customs will have the idea of good luck and prosperity with the seeds — there’s supposedly 365 seeds in the pomegranate, plus or minus a few,” he said.

“Have you ever counted?” I asked.

“No,” Schneider said with a chuckle. “Could be, could not…”

Another custom involves a memorial food that’s shared in honor of the dead.

“This is something we did for my father,” Schneider said. “When we had his memorial, we made koliva. We boil the wheat, we mix it with cinnamon, nuts, and raisins, and cover it with pomegranate seeds. And you cover it with sugar, and it’s something you offer to his memory at the cemetery.”

While getting the seeds out of a pomegranate can be intimidating, Schneider was just as comfortable with a pomegranate as he would be with a peach.

First, he filled a bowl with water. Then he scored the skin of the fruit with a sharp knife from tip to tip and plunged it into the bowl of water. The cuts made it easy to break the fruit apart with his hands. He gently pulled out the seeds, which look like cranberry-colored corn kernels, with his fingers. The bits of membrane that had come loose with the seeds floated to the top of the water, and Schneider scooped those out with ease and discarded them.

And there was no bloody mess.

“Can we taste one?” I asked. We each tried some of jewel-like seeds.
“That’s the seed crunching,” Schneider said.
“They’re delicious!” I replied.

By the way, Schneider actually counted for me, and it looks like the Greeks might be taking a teeny bit of poetic license with that idea about the 365 seeds.

Schneider stopped counting at 365, and he had half of a pomegranate left. There were two years of seeds in there.
           
And for the record, of course I didn’t end up staying at Taxim for a whole season after I ate the seeds. Though I have to say, when Schneider started telling me about his duck gyros with pomegranate sauce, I was pretty darn tempted.

Nina Barrett is a WBEZ food contributor. Jian Chung Lee produced this story.