A visitor from Berlin by way of Istanbul–Bernd Brunner. He’s an old friend and fellow author, even more prolific than me, who has been living and working and rooting into Istanbul for the past several years, also studying the Turkish language. He’s a gregarious, intense fellow. During his visit, though I offered olives, Biscotti smelling of anise, wine, tea or coffee, a glass of still water remained untouched in front of him while he devoured half of a giant (messy) pomegranate chopped up and laid out on rolls of paper toweling while we caught me up on all his news. His most recently published book is The Art of Lying Down: A Guide to Horizontal Living. Originally from Berlin where he also spends time, previous books include: Bears: A Brief History, Moon: A Brief History, Germans to America, The Ocean at Home, Inventing the Christmas Tree, Birds and Humans: A Curious History. An article titled “The Wild Dogs of Istanbul” has been included in Best American Travel Writing 2013. About this piece Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”) commented: “Written in such a strange and dreamy voice that it felt to me like an Italo Calvino short story, curiously translated from some lost, obscure language.” High, justified, praise; he is, indeed, a writer whose varied intriguing themes lure me in and keep me rapt in worlds I never expected to visit.
The following extract, from Bernd’s article in “Smart Set“ on the pomegranate. As happens with much of Bernd’s excavation, his study of the pomegranate has been expanding into a book:
The pomegranate must have other properties to have caught people’s imaginations for centuries. Unlike the potato, tea, sugar, or cotton, it hasn’t determined the course of world events: Its influence has been subtler. Rich associations run like a common theme through the cultures of antiquity. It is even possible that Adam and Eve’s forbidden fruit came from a pomegranate tree. The fruit’s large number of seeds earmarked the pomegranate’s destiny as a fertility symbol. It can be found as a holy plant among the ancient Egyptians and in Judaism. Here, the perfect pomegranate contains exactly 613 seeds, which corresponds to the number of commandments in the Torah. In ancient Greek reliefs, the pomegranate is sometimes a divine attribute, sometimes a sacrifice for the living, and, at other times, a gift for the heroized dead. Sometimes the fruit appears on equal footing with an egg, a blossom, or a cockerel. A semi-clad Aphrodite often carries a long scepter crowned by a pomegranate. Its unmistakable form has been modified many times, occasionally complemented by ornaments and rediscovered in the form of bottles of oil, vessels of ointments, glass vases, and gold pendants. Its characteristic calyx supposedly inspired King Solomon’s crown, and then those of the European monarchs. In ancient Rome, young women bedecked themselves with wreaths made of pomegranate leaves in the hope of being blessed with fertility. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a lark sings from the branches of a pomegranate tree. In some cultures, especially in Iran, it features in celebrations to this day, such as weddings, where anaar is dropped to the floor: They say the burst fruit brings fortune in engendering children.
While Bernd was examining the Biblical pomegranate, I’d taken the lowly potato and made it the armature on which I hung my gay novella The Potato Eater. I gave my friend a copy. In contrast to his glamorous pomegranate’s 613 seeds, my tuberous, starchy potato contains no seeds whatsoever. Last year around 368 million tons of potatoes were produced worldwide, dividing down to perhaps 77 pounds (33 kgs) per eater per year. Though my potato is perishable and will eventually decompose (has been accused of causing schizophrenia if allowed to rot in a dark place), it’s cheap and easy to grow. Ceramics shaped like potatoes are crafted in Peru and considered sacred. Van Gogh famously painted (1885) Dutch peasants eating my ordinary baked potato. Perhaps a bit gloomy, the eaters are coarse but earthy; just like my novella. My potato morphed into a toy–unattached plastic ears, eyes, mouth, derby hats that attach to a brown, plastic potato shape–Mr. Potato Head. To date, I know of no Mr. (or Mrs.) Pomegranate Head though Courbet, van Eyck, Ghulyan, Sargent, Rossetti, Botticelli, Holbein, Cezanne, among a miriad of others, have inserted Bernd’s pomegranates into paintings, mostly broken open and spilling out their luscious, sweet/tart 613 seeds.
Not rivals, it’s possible for one evocative edible to embolden the other. In concert: along with feta cheese, pepitas, olive oil, honey and red wine vinegar (walnuts optional) mixed together. Or maybe accompanying salmon and kale.
Nor are Bernd and I rivals. Instead, I’d say we’re farmers. Of a sort.