By Elizabeth Roca
Yesterday I bought the biggest pomegranate I have ever seen. My children and I were in the produce aisle at the supermarket. The baby, Camille, sat in the shopping cart’s seat, clutching an onion she had inexplicably demanded to hold, pointing and weeping until I gave in and handed it to her. Three-year-old Jonah was in the basket, looking at a book and nudging aside my groceries with his sneakers. Jonah’s twin, Lily, danced beside me, holding my shopping list and a pen. I was thinking that I shouldn’t bother buying fresh vegetables, because they rot in my refrigerator drawers faster than I can cook them, when I saw it: a pile of pomegranates stacked in a wooden crate, resting just below the pears.
My daughters like pears; I put a few in a plastic bag and tied it shut. Then I lingered, gazing at the pomegranates. I hadn’t eaten a pomegranate since my children were born. They take too much time. These were enormous, like big, bright-red softballs, and they looked to be in good condition, smooth and unblemished. They cost $1.99, which in my Washington, D.C., suburb is a decent price. Greed stirred in me.
I felt around among the pomegranates until I found one that was firm and taut-skinned, holding the promise of fresh, sweet juice. I tucked it on my cart’s bottom rack to keep it out of range of Jonah’s feet and wended my way through the store, piling the cart with milk and yogurt and cheese and bread and pasta sauce and veggie burgers until I almost forgot the pomegranate was there. Almost but not completely: I took care not to crush it with anything heavy, and I kept the thought of it in the back of my mind. My treat for the evening.
My mother was the person who taught me to love pomegranates, as she did avocados, artichokes, carambolas, kiwis, and other exotic fruits and vegetables. These were not common foods in the New Jersey suburbs, where I grew up, in the 1970s. She was a California transplant and retained many tastes of that mellow climate.
My fourth-grade classmates looked askance at lunchtime when I opened my brown paper bag and drew forth an artichoke, nicely steamed and wrapped in plastic, with a dab of mayonnaise in a Tupperware container on the side. Their bald questions—”What the heck is that?”— caused me some embarrassment, but not enough to stop me from peeling off the artichoke’s leaves, dipping them in the mayo, and scraping them with my teeth. Ah, bliss.
It occurs to me now that the foods my classmates found so weird were fun to eat, unlike the workaday apples and pears my mother usually put in our lunch bags. She brought home fresh coconuts and my brothers and I knocked out their eyes with a hammer and a sixteen-penny nail (there were three eyes in a coconut and three of us, so we each had a turn), drained the milk, then smashed in the coconut’s shell and fell to gnawing the dry, oily, delicately flavored meat.
While a coconut required brute force to eat, a pomegranate took a lot of fiddly fingerwork. My mother showed me how to quarter the pomegranate, pushing a sharp knife through the leathery rind. Inside it was packed with small seeds held in sections by a thin whitish-yellow skin. The seeds were the most lovely color, a deep, translucent red, with the white pit visible in the center, like a pebble seen through clear water. To loosen the seeds’ mutual embrace you had to bend back the rind and peel away the papery skin. Then you wiggled each seed until it broke away from the rind. Sometimes I ate them one at a time, and sometimes I collected a small handful and threw them in my mouth all at once. Either way, the seeds burst under my teeth, filling my mouth with thin, sweet, slightly astringent juice. It was a complex, meditative project. I spent happy, quiet hours at our kitchen table, sunlight shining in the little window behind me, peeling and crunching and wiping my red-stained fingers on a paper napkin.
Much of what we learn in childhood we learn through food, and much of what I learned about food I learned from my mother. I learned, to my regret, that men and children eat dessert while women do the dishes— but in the world of my childhood such a practice was commonplace. My mother did her best. She did very well at showing me and my brothers that odd food is something to be enjoyed, not feared, and that a fresh fig, for instance, is a thing of beauty, a reason for celebration.
I am a product of my own time, and I shudder to think what my children are learning from me about food. That women eat dessert with the men and children, then sidle into the kitchen and eat a second helping standing up at the counter. I hope that I am also passing on some of my mother’s adventurousness. My childhood lessons—that weird produce is our friend, that the funny-looking thing on the store shelf might be the best thing I ever tasted—has led me, in adulthood, to purchase such things as kumquats, Jerusalem artichokes, celery root, and jicama. Few elements of life are so constant and so potentially colorful as eating. It makes sense that we should explore every variation available to us.
Many of the foods that seemed unusual in my childhood are no longer considered strange. Artichokes are still more exotic than, say, broccoli, but they appear on my supermarket shelves often enough. New mothers are urged to mash avocados and feed them to their babies for their valuable unsaturated fatty acids. I tried this, but all three of my babies hated avocado so much my husband and I began calling their characteristic grimace “avocado face.” Their taste has not changed, at least in that area, so last week when my mother came to visit at lunchtime, bearing an avocado along with her usual low-cal frozen meal, we only had to divide it two ways. We drizzled it with Italian dressing and forked it up slowly, murmuring with pleasure over the rich, silky flesh.
I thought of my mother last night when I started cutting up my pomegranate. It was much too big for one person to eat, and I wished she were there to share it with me. It split under my knife with a fresh crunch, and crimson juice ran out on the plate. The seeds gleamed like wet rubies.
My husband is English, and although he grew up eating such oddities as trifle, Yorkshire pudding, and Marmite, the uncommon fruits of my childhood were not available in his hometown, a bedroom community midway between London and Cambridge. He’ll politely eat an artichoke if I set it before him at dinnertime, but he doesn’t much care for them. He shrugged at my offer of a pomegranate quarter. “They’re kind of a pain to eat,” he said, proving that some tastes must be acquired in childhood or not at all.
My path is clear: to indoctrinate my children into the eating of exotic produce while they are still young enough to play with it. With this in mind I called Lily, the most adventurous of my eaters, and showed her the pomegranate. “What you have?” she asked. “Lily try this?” I gave her a seed. She rolled it around in her mouth, then bit into it. Her face assumed an expression of dismay, and she spat.
But this morning in the organic market she picked up a Japanese sweet potato. “Lily buy this?” she asked. “Sure,” I said, and she heaved it into our cart.
At home I sliced the potato and steamed it. It had white, sweet, slightly mealy flesh, more like that of a roasted chestnut than the familiar American sweet potato. It was delicious, and I was the only one who would eat it. Lily shook her head at it, and Camille took a nugget and smashed it between her fingers. As for Jonah, he shrieks when served anything that isn’t lime-flavored yogurt or banana bread.
No matter; it was a beginning. Something about the potato’s gnarled shape and red-brown skin had appealed to Lily, and she had claimed it as her own. This is what I want for my children: That they not be shy about claiming pleasure for themselves, that they seek and find the uncommon delights of this world.
Author’s Note: I am fascinated by the ways in which we use food as a means of communication, and also by the simpler ways we use it for entertainment. Recently I left a steamed artichoke on the kitchen counter to cool, thinking with happy anticipation that I would eat it for lunch the next day. I returned later to find Lily standing on a stepstool, scraping artichoke leaves with her teeth like an expert. Denuded leaves were flying everywhere. It wasn’t quite the entertainment I’d had in mind when I cooked the artichoke, but it was funny nonetheless. I think I’m well on my way to having at least one weird food eater among my offspring.
Elizabeth Roca’s work has appeared frequently in Brain, Child. She lives with her family in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Brain, Child (Fall 2005)