Summer in the land of pomegranates

A taste of the ruby, sweet-tart pearls told me I was back home in Iran.

Ari Denison/The Christian Science Monitor/FILE
Scarlet pearls: Pomegranates, native to Iran, are available mostly from October to January in the United States.

As yellow leaves spiral down from the maple tree outside my office window, I find myself thinking about Persephone, who, according to Greek myth, will soon be heading back to the underworld. A few pomegranate seeds – a few luscious, scarlet pearls that burst, tart and sweet, on her tongue – and she had to return to the underworld for a season every year.

As the grass fades to pale brown and the foliage peaks in reds and oranges, I can imagine a pitched cry from Demeter, who loses her daughter again each year. Then, while Persephone pays penance in the underworld, we experience the silent mourning of winter.

I've always been intrigued by the way the Persephone myth captures the melancholy of fall and the intensity of love. And then, for me, there's the pomegranate, the succulent, lush fruit.

I was born in Iran where pomegranates are native. My favorite foods were flavored with pomegranate. Rop eh anar – pomegranate syrup – is a staple in every kitchen. I was only 3 when my American mother and Iranian father gathered our few possessions and booked a one-way flight to Texas. But once there, we continued to eat Persian food, with steaming saffron rice and fenugreek-laced stews, and, when we could find it, pomegranate.

In Texas, I felt as though I had a secret life. I was just another girl to my classmates, but I knew a world where everything was different. We spent summers in Tehran where I slept under the stars at night, curled in my grandmother's arms. I drank fragrant tea, steeped on a samovar.

Even a pomegranate, a rare thing in Texas, was an ordinary fruit in Iran. It sat on the fruit platter, and after my grandfather and I – stretched out like cats on the Persian carpets in the den – played more games of cards than we could count, he would take a knife and saucer, reach for a cucumber, an orange, or a pomegranate, slice away the skin, and we'd eat.

In the summer in Tehran, my family would gather for lunch in the late afternoon, my grandparents coming home from the office they shared, aunts and uncles and cousins joining us at the table. I don't remember who cooked or who served, but I remember the yogurt and cucumber salad, the plate of fresh greens and radishes, the dishes of basmati, and the fessenjan, a ground walnut and pomegranate stew.

In Houston, I missed my extended family. I missed the sight of the snow-capped Alborz mountains visible behind Tehran's skyline and the Persian music in my ears each day. I missed my grandparents. But years passed. I went to school in Texas and learned to read in English and made American friends. Eventually, when we visited Tehran in the summer, I was my grandparents' American grandchild.

In 1978 – one of the last times I visited Iran – my mother, younger sister, and I went to visit for a few weeks in the middle of the year. When we left, my mother wrapped up a bottle of pomegranate syrup and tucked it into her carry-on bag.

We changed planes in Shiraz, and in the restroom of the small airport, my mother's bag crashed to the ground, and the bottle shattered. It was a mess, with the sticky, ruby-colored liquid adhering to every surface it touched. My mother threw away her bag, tucked us into a taxi, and with only an hour of layover, ventured onto the unfamiliar streets of Shiraz to find pomegranate syrup.

That's the way it is for people who love two cultures: You live in one and long for the other. A bottle of pomegranate syrup becomes a precious thing. Persephone regretted eating those seeds, but I crave them. I haven't been back to Iran for almost 30 years, but when I peel back the thick skin of a pomegranate and slip a few of the ruby pearls onto my tongue, they taste like home.

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