Little did I know that even then the American pomegranate was beginning to emerge from the underworld of obscurity. In the late eighties, on-line flower mogul Lynda Resnick bought land in central California that included some pomegranate trees. She tasted the fruit, got hooked, and began to look into its health benefits. Research from the University of California has shown that pomegranate juice contains more antioxidants than red wine or green tea, and a study by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology found that the juice may reduce plaque buildup in arteries. Over a decade, Resnick planted 6,000 more acres of pomegranates. Her company, Los Angeles-based Pom Wonderful, is determined to spread the pomegranate gospel.
"We're making every effort to take away the fear factor," says Fiona Posell, a Pom Wonderful spokesperson. The company's supermarket displays include brochures with tips on how to open a pomegranate mess-free (underwater, so the juice doesn't squirt out), how to freeze it for later use, and what to call the seeds (arils). Two years ago, Pom Wonderful launched a line of juices in distinctive bulbous bottles that has helpedspark a nationwide craze for pomtinisand pomdrivers. Josie Restaurant in Santa Monica dresses its salads with pomegranate reduction and marinates its game in the fruit's juice. In New York, Ixta serves pomegranate-infused cocktails such as the Danza del Fuego ("dance of fire"—which also contains tequila, fresh lime juice, and Cointreau); Rosa Mexicano in both New York and Washington, D.C., is famous for its pomegranate margaritas. The juice even made a splash on reality TV, when the Fab Five swooned over pomegranate spritzers on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. But you don't have to ingest thefruit to reap its benefits. Murad puts out a line of pomegranate skin-care products, Calvin Klein has a new pomegranate-infused perfume, and Henri Bendel makes a pomegranate candle. According to a breathless article in the Florida-based Sun, Calista Flockhart has bathed in the juice, an option my brother and I never considered.
A few years ago, my father began to report sightings of decent pomegranates in California farmers' markets. Inspired, he planted a pomegranate tree in the backyard. My mother has returned to making her fesenjan with the real thing. But the moment I knew America had finally joined the tribe of true believers was last winter in a Queens supermarket. Picking through the usual slim offerings, I came upon a three-foot-high box of giant pomegranates selling for $1.99 apiece. I hefted one; it was reassuringly heavy. After inspecting it for signs of age I bought two, went home, and rediscovered the sweet and tangy nectar of childhood.
Well, almost. This fall, my father and I returned to Iran, and at a little store in our old neighborhood we ordered a fresh cup of pomegranate juice from a man with an aluminum press. The juice was pinker than I'd remembered, with a clear yet complex flavor that carried hints of the leaves and the soil and the air we'd been away from for so long. Then we ordered another cup, and I thought of a remark from Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the San Francisco-based Pomegranate Council, that made me feel proud of those fragrant little trees on my aunt's farm. "We do produce what has become known as the gold standard," he said of the four American varieties that have recently gained prominence. But one other country still wears the crown. "The only place you'll find better pomegranates," he confessed, "is in Iran."
TARA BAHRAMPOUR is a staff writer at the Washington Post.