Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cucumber Sandwiches with Yuzu (or Lemon) and Chive Butter in Fun Home // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food (in very long posts, apparently). This third installment is a graphic novel. 

Three books in and my theory was almost debunked. 

As I read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, I kept thinking, oh no. There's no real, or at least meaningful, connection to food. Sure there are mentionings of meatballs (67.2) and a hot dog (139.2). The family makes popcorn (141.3) and eats paella (160.2) and moussaka with sourdough bread (163.3). And there are hamburgers (169.3), a martini (179.3) and pizza (180.5), but none of it really was central to the story. 

People eat. Even people in graphic memoirs. Sometimes food is just utilitarian. Clearly, my theory was bogus.

But then, there it was. Glaring. Obvious--Sunbeam bread. 

Fun Home tells the story of a young Alison who comes out to her parents four months before her father is hit by a Sunbeam bread truck--in an apparent but ambiguous suicide. She tries to make sense of her relationship with her parents, particularly her father, as she comes to understand her own sexuality and that of her father's, who spent the last 20 years of his adult life engaged in affairs with young men while still married to her mother.

Let's go back to that apparent suicide, the moment that Alison keeps coming back to herself. Emblazoned across the semi truck: Sunbeam bread

How could I miss it? How could I overlook all of that cherubic innocence of a ringlet-laden girl as she bites into a slice of bread?  Even according to Sunbeam's own website, "No other bread brand in America has the personality and appeal of Little Miss Sunbeam. For more than 60 years, the image of this sweet girl has been synonymous with fresh, quality baked foods." 

And I started looking more closely. The bread is everywhere in the book.

Theory intact.

Let's dig a little deeper, shall we?

Most clearly, Bechdel connects the Sunbeam bread to her father. Of course, this most obvious connection to Sunbeam is when we see the logo front and center on a truck bearing down on her father (59.3). In reality, her father is, indeed, hit by a Sunbeam truck. However, in the book, what we see in this panel is not his death. We see a fantasy alternative for her father, where Bechdel imagines him being just missed by the truck. He is oblivious as it speeds by, and Little Miss Sunbeam looms. Innocence--or at least this commercialized and commodified version of it--keeps powering on by, as her father continues his life. 

But that's not really how it happened. Instead, he was hit by that Sunbeam bread truck. Innocence comes to a full stop for Alison. In an interview with The Comics Journal, Bechdel says of Sunbeam: "So its cheesy, sunny logo stands in as a sort of ironic memento mori."

This memento mori is one not only of her father's death but that of innocence. Throughout the book, bread juxtaposes the fixed innocence of the Sunbeam girl and a growing understanding of sex, sexuality, and secrecy for a young Alison. The Sunbeam bread suggests a kind of innocence that can be pinned down in a moment. However, despite the desire to pin it down, that innocence is fleeting and mutating. 

And that mutation is not always to disastrous effects, for Little Miss Sunbeam is the ideal young American girl of stereotypical femininity that Alison so strongly bucks against.

Let's take a moment just to detail all the moments Sunbeam shows up in the book: 
  • 21.1:  Her father smashes a plate at the dinner table beneath a loaf of bread. He is the "minotaur" around whom the whole of the family must step as he hides his own shame of his sexuality.
  • 31.2:  Alison carries bread as her "urbane father with his unwholesome interest in the decorative arts" encounters "old school chums" who, dressed in baggy clothes and a baseball hat, encourage him to come to camp where he won't "hafta shoot nothin'" and can instead "sit around the stove and get bombed." This is the first time we see the Sunbeam bread in a panel that sets up this stereotypical masculinity up against her father's experience.
  • 96.1:  We see this juxtaposition again in an advertisement in the window of gas station as she compares her father to "the grimy deer hunters...with their yellow workboots and shorn-sheep haircuts." Her father often comes up short in her mind.
  • 112.2:  This connection between her own sense of innocence and this burgeoning understanding of sex, sexuality, and transgression continues with its connection to Sunbeam bread. Her father carries a bag of Sunbeam bread as he gets in the car. Younger Alison has just discovered a female nudie calendar given to her father by her Uncle Fred. In the next hours she goes to a strip mine where it is imperative that the man who shows them around sees her as a boy rather than a girl. And he has the same nudie calendar on the wall (113.1).
All of these add up to some elusive, gendered and sometimes sexualized innocence, if only for a moment, that she wants her father to make space for but fails at time and again. And so she becomes as trapped by this image of innocence as much as she wants to hold onto this innocence. 

Not all of the Sunbeam bread is connected to Alison's father, however. Twice it moves to her mother.
  • 217.2:  A bag of Sunbeam bread sits in the background as her mother tells her of her father's affairs, shoplifting, speeding tickets, lying and rages (216.3). It's the first time her mother speaks to her as an adult and she advises her mother to leave her father (which she does, two weeks before he is killed by the Sunbeam truck). 
  • 67.1:  She and her mother make meatballs as she tries to make sense of her parent's "arctic" marriage through allusions to her mother as a Henry James character ("a vigorous American idealist" (66.1) and her father as one from F. Scott Fitzgerald (a man who can metamorphose the imaginary to the real).
Damnit, Sunbeam.  You're everywhere in this book, and you refuse to be pinned down.

So there it is, all wrapped up in her parents and their sexuality and independence, in her fantasy of innocence powering on without the death of her father, and her own growing understanding of her own sexuality and gender expression.

Bread and innocence, or a desperate desire for this bought-and-sold version of it, firmly fixated in the book.

Now, you're probably wondering how I am going to make the leap from Sunbeam bread to cucumber sandwiches. Here we go:

The summer Alison turned 13, her mother played Lady Bracknell (Aunt Augusta) in a local production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

In the play, Algernon wolfs down cucumber sandwiches that were intended for Lady Bracknell. When another character, Jack, is left to eat only bread and butter, Jack too eats as if he "were already married to" Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn. Already, food becomes connected to consumption, this time sexual consumption. Even Bechdel writes of these sandwiches as such: "desire is encoded as one of the character's uncontrollable gluttony" (166.4). Algernon is a man with a considerable appetite that does not always take into account the effect of this appetite on others. Wilde, himself, had to cloak his own sexuality, until he was brought to trial in 1895 for "gross indecency" with men. 

In the very next panel, we learn that the Bechdel family eats cucumber sandwiches all summer long (167.1). But their father eats them faster than they can make them, reaching in to consume the sandwiches as the children spread on mayonnaise and stack cucumbers. A man with appetites. Appetites that younger Alison is ignorant of but then later sees as her connection to her father.

And this is a book that is wide reaching in its own appetites and that cannot pin down anything. It is one concerned with intertextuality, for Bechdel makes connections and comparisons to Proust, Homer, Colette, Joyce, Wilde, James, Fitzgerald, Camus, Stevens, Daedelus and Icarus. Explaining this book to someone is a tricky one because it relies on its connection to all of these other stories to be understood. Just in the same way Alison relies on her father (and her mother) and his story in order to understand her own (as perhaps we all do). Meaning and understanding in this story are slippery--for Alison the character, Bechdel the author, and for us as readers. Her father's sexuality and her connection to it, her father's death (is it or is it not a suicide?), her own relationship to her father, language itself (as she writes "I think" over and again in her diary, finally moving to a notational shorthand that obliterates her own written rendering of experience), her search for the meaning of father in the dictionary and it leads her on a circular goose chase through the word beget, and her disdain of Victorian decoration which her father used as a way to conceal one's self loathing--"He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not" (16.4).

Indeed this is a book of revelation and cloaking, of glimpses of a passing innocence and a surety of experience. Of appetites and shame. Of commodification and construction of innocence. Of a refusal to be fixed in meaning or knowing or understanding. 

That's a lot for white bread.

But I know. I could only choose Sunbeam bread. It seems so obvious (almost pedestrian) now, doesn't it?

So in the fashion not of Fun Home but of The Importance of Being Earnest which in turns means of Fun Home, I present to you cucumber sandwiches made with white bread (sadly, mine was not Sunbeam bread, but it was requistitely similar in pure, unadulterated commercialization of white bread). I could do it only from a properly fussy afternoon tea book by Will Torrent. Go ahead, consume a lot of these.  

You might have some appetites you want to indulge under a cloak. I won't tell.


Cucumber Sandwiches with Yuzu (or Lemon) and Chive Butter

"Mom helped the prop mistress find a recipe for cucumber sandwiches. We ate them all summer" (Fun Home 167.1).

Adapted from Will Torrent's Afternoon Tea at Home

This is a lovely little cookbook, whenever you need a fussy lunch, brunch, snack, or tea time.

24 little sandwiches


7 Tbsp butter
2 tsp yuzu or lemon juice
1 Tbsp finely chopped chives
salt and black pepper, to taste
1/2 large cucumber
2 tsp cider vinegar
8 slices white bread

1. Beat the butter until really soft and spreadable. Gradually add the yuzu or lemon juice, mix and season with salt and black pepper. Add the chives and mix to combine.

2.  Peel the cucumber and thinly slice into rounds. Put the slices in a small bowl and add the cider vinegar and toss to coat.

3. Lay half of the bread slices on the work surface and spread with 1/2 the butter mixture.

4.  Arrange the cucumber slices on top as neatly and evenly as possible and season with salt and pepper. Spread the remaining bread with the butter mixture and press on top of the cucumber-topped bread, butter side down.

5.  Gently press the sandwiches together and trim off the crusts, using a serrated knife. 

6.  Cut the sandwiches into neat rectangles or triangles to serve.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Baechu (Napa Cabbage) Kimchi

Friends, there are so many kinds of kimchi, it's almost overwhelming.  

Here are just a few: 10 different kinds of kimchi and 7 more kinds.  And, people, that's just the tip of the cabbage--there are about 200 more kinds (at least according to Lucky Peach).

This strong, briny, and somewhat fizzy amalgamation of veggies is steeped in ginger and gochugaru (red pepper flakes) for a few days or a few months. And it is so tasty. In all its forms.

It should come as so surprise that I have never turned from any banchan (those delectable little side dishes served at Korean restaurants)--fermented, salted, fresh, fried, or otherwise.  Given my proclivities for morsels and sauces, you can imagine that banchan is my favorite part of a Korean meal. And kimchi is always well represented--in its many forms--among banchan.

And in my attempts to be a better educated kimchi eater, I can pass on this much about kimchi (with some internet searching):
  • This is an old food in Korea, and probably came about because 1.) winters are mighty cold on the Korean peninsula (some of the coldest in the world at its latitude) and 2.) preserving salted foods in a land with few fertile plains was a matter of survival not just taste buds;
  • Historians believe that the Chinese developed a similar food preservation in about 50 BCE, and Koreans quickly adopted the method, but others will argue an even longer history for Korea's national dish;
  • You can make it with cabbage and radishes, but also cucumbers, mustard leaves (gat), and a whole host of other veggies;
  • There is a great debate about what can be called kimchi, especially as more Japanese people embrace this Korean dish. Some Koreans find that the Japanese kimchi comes no where close to Korean kimchi, and as such should not be called "kimchi."

What I also know is that I have been a fan of kimchi for decades. When I was in graduate school, my then boyfriend's mother would make up huge batches of this and put them out on his balcony to be stored throughout the Washington DC winters. She delighted when it would snow on that little balcony, keeping the kimchi cold. I delighted when the then boyfriend cracked open a new jar.

Here's what else I know: kimchi makes a fantastic banchan, yes. But you're missing out if you don't also add it to fried rice or spread on a quesedilla (a revelation from the Hawaiian-Korean fusion restaurant Marination in Seattle). Add it to scrambled eggs. Or layer it onto a grilled cheese. Or, people, add it to some soy-sauce-marinated beef in a soft taco with scallions (heavenly).

But don't hesitate to just stick the fork (or chopsticks) in the jar and go for it, all on its kimchi own. 


Baechu (Napa Cabbage) Kimchi

Adapted from Agricola Cookbook by way of Food in Jars

6 1-pint jars

1 large head of napa cabbage (3-4 pounds), cut into 2-inch chunks
1/3 cup kosher salt
1 pound daikon radish, julienned
1 bundle green onions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
8-9 cloves garlic, peeled
3 inches fresh ginger, peeled
4-7 tablespoons gochugaru

1.  Place the chopped cabbage in a large bowl and add salt. Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 2-inch pieces, discarding the root end. Place in a large bowl, sprinkle with the salt, and toss with your hands until the cabbage is coated. Add enough cold water to just cover, making sure the cabbage is submerged.  Place a plate on top of the cabbage and top the plate with a heavy weight (I used a jar of kombucha I am brewing, I admit (see below)).  Let sit for 3-4 hours or even overnight.

2.  Drain the cabbage and return the cabbage to the bowl and add the prepared daikon and green onion.

3.  In a small food processor or blender, combine the garlic cloves, ginger, and sugar. Chop until a paste forms. Add it to the bowl with the vegetables.

4.  Add the gochugaru. For a batch this size, I like to use 5-6 tablespoons. That makes a mildly spicy batch. If you're very sensitive to heat, use less. If you want something a little more zippy, add more.

5. Use your hands to work the spices into the vegetables. Pack it all into a half gallon jar or small crock. Weigh it down with a 4 ounce jar or pickling weights and cover the vessel with an airlock or kitchen cloth (the airlock helps keep the fragrance confined).

6.  Let the kimchi ferment for six to seven days, until you like how it tastes.  (I am going to admit, I am on week three, and I am still letting it ferment; just keep tasting it until you like it, which means you get a little kimchi everyday.)

7.  When the kimchi is done, portion it into jars and refrigerate.

Weighting the cabbage in a cold water brine with a jar of kombucha. One fermentation aids another.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Polenta with Winter Salad, Poached Egg, and Blue Cheese

Could there be anything more comforting than a bowl of hot polenta topped with a runny egg? Yep. If it's also accompanied by bursting cherry tomatoes and warmed radicchio and frisée. And, people, it has been one rainy winter, so we're looking for savory comfort food. Food to be eaten while it rains, again. Food to be eaten while the sky is grey. Food for a Sunday afternoon.

Enter Sarah Copeland, the food director for Real Simple. In her second cookbook, Feast, she gives an array of polenta options--one for each season.  
  • Winter: Polenta with Winter Salad, Poached Egg, and Blue Cheese
  • Spring: Polenta with Sugar Snaps
  • Summer: Polenta with Grilled Tomatoes and Zucchini
  • Fall: Polenta with Mushroom Pomodoro
Don't those all sound delicious? I see a future for me and polenta.

But what we really want to focus on here, friends, is this Winter Salad topping: radicchio, frisée, and a handful of sautéed cherry tomatoes. 

And it doesn't matter that these are somewhat tasteless and out-of-season tomatoes in one of those plastic clam shells, because we're going to coax a ton of flavor out of them, sally them right next to some sharp and bitter lettuces, and top with creamy blue cheese.  

We can do this.

And we are going to jump whole-heartedly into this quite pretty corn porridge and snuggle in for an afternoon of reading and rain (to be followed by an evening of visitors and probably more rain). 


Polenta with Winter Salad, Poached Egg, and Blue Cheese

Adapted from Sarah Copeland's Feast

4 Servings

½ cups water
1 cup polenta
1 ¼ cup whole milk
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 ounce cheddar cheese, grated
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 handful cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground pepper
¼ small head radicchio, chopped into bite-size pieces
½ head frisée, town into bite-size pieces
Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp white vinegar
4 large eggs
1-2 ounces blue cheese (Danish blue, Roquefort, Valdeon Blue, or Gorgonzola)


1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Slowly add the polenta, stir with a wooden spoon, and add 1 tsp salt. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is tender and fully cooked, about 20 minutes. Add the milk, 2 Tbsp butter, and the cheddar to the polenta and stir tether over medium-low heat until just warmed through soft enough to drop easily from a spoon. Cover to keep warm.

2.  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are charred and have burst, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the radicchio and frisée and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in a dash of balsamic vinegar, the remaining ½ cup water, and the remaining 1 Tbsp butter. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir everything together.

3.  Fill a shallow skillet two-thirds full with salted water and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the teaspoon of white vinegar (the acid helps keep the egg from spreading or "feathering" too far). Crack each egg individually into a small bowl and then carefully slip each one into the water. Poach the eggs for 3-4 minutes, until the whites have set but the yolks are still soft. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon, and place on a paper-towel-lined plate. 

4.  Spoon the polenta into bowls and top with the warm salad and a poached egg. Crumble the blue cheese over the top before serving.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Long-Cooked Kale, Please (with Broth)

Oh sure, kale seems to have had its moment. And many in the past two years have declared that kale has passed its prime and has been replaced by watercress, insects, amaranth, or dulse. People have gotten kale overload, ever since kale got its own year (2012) at Bon Appetit and procured its own National Day (2013) with cringe-inducing Kaleabrations.

But I still like kale. Especially if it is cooked for a really long time. I admit, I can leave raw or massaged kale aside. I find it too bitter and chewy. (Plus, I experience envy, for I wish to be massaged before a meal, too.)  

No, my friends, no tough kale that requires masticating like a cud animal for me.  

I want my kale mellow and melting.

Enter David Tanis. 

There is not much to this dish, and that's the point. In Spain's response to the American South's long-braised collard greens comes this long-cooked kale with spicy chorizo and melted onions. 

May I recommend a rather liberal smattering of chile peppers on top, and then you, my friend, will have a simple dinner tonight. May I also recommend a triangle of well-toasted garlic bread? 

A couple of links that might tickle your fancy (because apparently I am channeling my deceased grandmother in saying that):

  • How did kale become so famous? The folks at mindbodygreen have some theories. Go check them out.
  • Want another long-cooked kale recipe because this one wasn't enough?  Try this one--I know I will.

So, let's keep it simple tonight, friends, and scoop up a bowl of long-cooked kale. Feel free to slurp the broth, or top toasted garlic bread with a heaping pile of kale. 

Either way, you'll be rethinking watercress or insects or whatever else will be stylish this year. We just want some good food.


Long Cooked Kale with Broth

Adapted From David Tanis' One Good Dish

4-6 Servings

2 lbs kale
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
½ lb Spanish chorizo, sliced
Large pinch of red pepper flakes
1 cup chicken broth
Sherry vinegar
Crusty bread, sliced


1. Cut the kale crosswise into 2-inch pieces, discarding particularly tough stems (although you can keep much of the central stalk, as you'll be cooking them for so long).  Wash twice in cold water and drain.

2.  Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary so that the onions don't over-brown. Add the chorizo and red pepper flakes and cook for 2 minutes more.

3.  Add the kale, sprinkling liberally with salt, then turn the heat to high and stir with a wooden spoon to help the greens wilt. Add chicken broth and continue to stir until it is simmering briskly. Cover and reduce the heat to low; it should be brothy--add more water if necessary. Cook the kale slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 45-60 minutes until very tender.

4.  Taste and adjust salt and pepper, adding a few drops of sherry vinegar. Serve with sliced crusty bread to sop up the broth.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Salt-Preserved Meyer Lemons

Okay, friends.  Round two. As you know, Marisa McClellan from Food in Jars has set forth a Mastery Challenge, and we're in month two.  January was marmalade, and February offers up one of my favorite ways to preserve food: salt preserving. Come on, there is nothing simpler than salt preserving. Seriously, nothing.

Preserved lemons can be rather pricey.  This morning, the husband and I walked up to our favorite coffee place (Hi, Highwire!) and walked through Market Hall. A small pint of preserved lemons was $15. Yikes. 

Turns out I needed about three lemons per jar to equal a pound. 

But you can make your own, quite cheaply. All that's required to transform your lemons is salt and patience. I have an abundance of one, and it's not patience.

So here you go, simple and easy.  And if you want to get fancy, you can add some spices (as I do for one of my jars, per Marisa McClellan's suggestion). But that's not required. You keep your lemons unadorned. 

Now, here's the rub...we need to wait three weeks. Three weeks before we're puréeing lemons for salad dressing or adding them into a tagine or spooning them on roast lamb or chopping them into a harissa and preserved lemon relish or mashing them onto crostini with peas and asparagus. I have plans, friends, and we better get preserving if we want March to be filled with lemony goodness.


Salt-Preserved Meyer Lemons

Adapted from Marisa McClellan's Preserving by the Pint

1 24-ounce (pint and a half) jar

1 pound Meyer lemons, preferably organic
½ cup kosher salt
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp black peppercorns
½ tsp whole cloves
½ tsp allspice berries

1. Wash the lemons well. Trim away the stem end and slice the lemons into 6 segments per piece of fruit.

2. Place the spices in a large, wide-mouth jar. Pour 1 Tbsp of kosher salt into the bottom of the jar and pack in the first 6 segments of lemon. Top with salt and then more lemon and continue to alternate until the jar is filled and you're out of lemons. Place a tight-fitting lid on the jar and give it a shake.

3.  Let the jar sit in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Shake the jar daily to help distribute the salt, spices, and liquid. The lemons will have started out quite dry, but as they age, they should release enough liquid so that the lemons are mostly submerged.  Open the lid every few days to release the fermentation pressure.

4.  Once the lemon skins look soft and the liquid has taken on a pleasantly funky, tangy taste, put the jar in the fridge. They will keep up to a year.

You can also skip all the spices and just make this with 1 pound of lemons and 1/2 cup of salt.  That's it. It's that simple.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pomegranate and Raspberry Chutney in In the Orchard, the Swallows // Cook Your Books

And now for entry #2 in what appears to be a longform series. 

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. This second installment is a book with fewer than 150 pages. (Here's your second warning:  It turns out these entries on Cook Your Books are long ones. Time to settle in.)

 In the Orchard, the Swallows  by Peter Hobbs appears on this list simply because of its length. My arbitrary category dictated a book with fewer than 150 pages, and a quick Google search for "Best Books under 150 Pages" launched this one to to the top of my possible books to read. 

And what a book it was.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator who has been thrust back into the world after having spent the last 15 years in a Pakistani prison. His crimes? The unblemished connection to Saba, the daughter of a powerful politician, and the defense of his own life. While in prison, he endures torture, sexual abuse, malnutrition, disease, and overcrowding--all of which Hobbs writes with a painful, spare clarity. His survival in prison is dependent on his memory of love and of freedom embodied by Saba; and once out of prison, his survival is due to the generosity of a scholarly poet Abbas, who discovers the narrator unconscious by the road and saves him from certain death.  

In the present day, the narrator daily visits his family's former pomegranate orchard----his father's labor of love and the place the unnamed narrator spent a chaste night with Saba so long ago.  Now he sits beneath neglected trees, watching as the blossoms grow into crowns of fruit with "slim and green" flesh (26). The summer passes, and we watch as he composes a letter to Saba and the pomegranates ripen.

This seems simple enough. Indeed, Hobbs' story is simple and its telling straightforwards, but it is also haunting in its spareness. For this is not just a tale of a young man falling into middle age after his youth is stolen from him; it is also a political tale of Pakistan, as corruption takes root while war grinds on in Afghanistan.

However, Hobbs' focus always is on this love story, not because it supersedes war in terms of importance. No, it's because it helps to contextualize hope in the face of such devastation--both within prison and without. 

Fifteen years ago, the unnamed narrator, then only a teenage boy, gave a gift to Saba while in the fruit stalls of the market:
I bent down to my bags, and took from one of them the finest pomegranate I could find. Then I walked up to you, and waited for you to look at me. Your stopped talking, and stared at me curiously. Then I held the fruit out at arm's length. I placed its weight in your hand--which you had put out almost in surprise--and then I walked away. I gave you a pomegranate, then I walked away...And that was our first meeting. (30)
I love the simplicity of that: "I gave you a pomegranate, then I walked away..." His sweet simplicity and the seriousness of the gesture. 

And she returned the gift with her name, which the narrator carries with him, "the most precious thing [he] owned" (31) and he is careful not to speak it often. However, later, in the dark of his imprisonment, he whispers her name so that "something of you would be restored to me, and something of myself would be saved" (31). Fruit for a name. A name for a life. Sure, this could almost smack of sentimentality: however, in such a pared down book that does not shrink from spare descriptions of torture and neglect, this focus on a simple pomegranate in exchange for a name seems transaction enough to sustain both narrator and reader. 

Upon the narrator's release from prison, we watch as he details the process of learning to read and write with the poet Abbas. Daily, he sits beneath the ripening orchard, remembers his short time with Saba, and speaks of endurance and healing. Later we learn that he is writing this to Saba, and we hear him describing not just the pomegranates, but himself and the healing he is undergoing beneath these trees:
Among the branches the pomegranates are ripening. The last of the petals from their flowers has fallen. I was tempted to take one, but they are not yet at their best, the colour of their skin not yet warm, and so I will be patient. The promise of a fruit freshly opened, its juice running from broken arils, is exquisite, and will enable the walk to come easier still. I have longed to taste one again. The thought of it is enough to cause my mouth to water, my stomach to gurgle. The memory of that taste is no less than the memory of my childhood. Whenever my sisters or I suffered an upset stomach we were given a cup of juice morning and evening while we were ill, to settle our bellies once again. We were given pomegranate to soothe cuts and grazes, to ease coughs, to cool fever. (108-9)

And soon the descriptions become those of pleasure and care, even when both have been denied the narrator for so long:
Today I broke open a pomegranate. I have been watching them carefully, and the earliest among them are beautifully ripe. I know I should not take one, but I could not resist. Its absence will hardly be noticed, and my body has been so thirsty for the taste. Eat of their fruits when they ripen, says the Qur'an. I spent a long time choosing the finest one I could find, whose skin was firm, glowing like your cheeks in the morning light. I picked it carefully, so as not to disturb the other fruits around it, and then I held its weight in my hand, gripping it with my palm and fingers, skin against skin. To test its ripeness I held it to my ear and tapped it, and was regarded with that strange and perfect sound, almost metallic in its tone. (115)
The pomegranate that was once given as a gift to Saba becomes a gift to himself, a gift of remembering her childish cheeks, her innocence, and as such his own innocence in a world that can be known through the simple tapping of the fruit. The pomegranate is something solid, knowable, and to be held dear, yet it is sacred, unknowable, and a precious vessel for faith.  He continues:
When we were young my mother told us this hadith: that the pomegranate was among the trees grown in the gardens of paradise, and that all such tress are descended from it. So within each fruit is a pip that belongs to that original tree, and when we eat, we must not miss a single aril, in case it is the sacred one. (115-6)
Within each pomegranate holds the potential for the sacred, for precious care. During the mornings, Abbas and his daughter teach the unnamed narrator to read and to write in Abbas's back garden. And so he writes, directing this slim book as an apostrophe to Saba. He compares his writing to her as to eating fruit: "I have had so much to say to you, and had wondered for a long time how I might do so. In person, it would come in a rush. I would have too much to tell, and no way to begin. This way, I have not needed to tell you everything at once, but just one piece at a time, measured out in bites, as though you were eating a fruit" (126). The act of writing slows him down, ensures he savors each word, each moment, including the torture, the imprisonment, the neglect, for it is as much his story as is the gift of her name, the night spent beneath the pomegranate trees, and the confrontation with her father. 

In the present day of the book, the war in Afghanistan escalates, and the Taliban move in, bomb girls' schools, impose sharia, and kill teachers. Corruption infiltrates and some men exploit the US desire for an easy justice: Pakistani men claim that other innocent men are terrorists and sell them to the US.

And still the unnamed narrator writes his love story to a girl who is now a woman, who may not even know he is alive, who has probably married and created a life of her own, separate from him. Still he writes and tells his story to her. To us.

This is a deeply personal book about a boy who innocently loved a girl and a man who watches as his country divides itself on a political and communal level in order to appease those who do not fully understand. I hate to be reductive, but reading these kinds of political books, where the personal is profoundly political seems important right now.

So then Hobbs comes back to the food. Mostly pomegranates. Almost always the pomegranates.  As the book begins to wind down to its close, the narrator sees the potential for devastation as the farmer neglects his crop:
In the orchard the pomegranates hang ripely on the trees, their red skins darkening by the day, turning to crimsons and purples. They should have been picked by now. Every morning I arrive expecting the branches to be emptied, but still they are full. It is clear that the owner is neglectful of his crop. Perhaps it is simply that he does not know what he is doing or perhaps he does not need the income, and the orchard was indeed merely a gift he did not want, a payment for some service rendered or some loyalty proven. It would make me terribly sad to think so, to see land that was tended for years with love given over to greed and waste. The fruit will begin to split if it is left for much longer. Soon, the touch of rain on its stretched skin will be enough to cause it to swell and open. A storm will devastate the crop (123).
 Time is beginning to ravage this fruit, and if nothing is done--if the fruit is forgotten--it will be destroyed.

In the final pages of the book, the pomegranates are finally harvested but done so carelessly (127). Here, among a ground littered with wasted and neglected fruit, pushed aside out of negligence or greed or waste, the narrator imagines that Saba will find him again in the orchard and he will give her his notebook: "He will stand, and carefully, like a child offering a piece of fruit, he will hold out the book to you. 'Here,' he will say. 'Take this. It is for you. It is finished'" (137). 

He imagines that he will pass on the preventable loss of innocence that was based on the whims and desire of her father and his captors--those with an unexamined power. She may never return to him. He may never be able to give her the notebook. But in the act of our reading this notebook, we can see that he was once able to give the gift of the fruit with each aril holding the possibility for the sacred, and that now he can give the gift of this notebook with its ability to name things as they are, carefully and sparely.


Pomegranate and Raspberry Chutney

"I dug my thumbs together to break the outer rind, and then prised the fruit apart, opening it into two halves, watching the inner cells tear away from the soft, bitter tissue that holds them. My hands shook as I raised it to my mouth. And the taste of the juice on my tongue! It was so sweet my lips quivered, but with that faint dry sourness in my mouth afterwards. It was wonderful. I gulped the pieces, careful not to miss a single aril" (In the Orchards, The Swallows 115).

Adapted from Summaya Usmani's Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and memories from Pakistan.  

This is a gorgeous little recipe from a delightful cookbook that focuses on Pakistani cooking. With the brightness of the raspberries next to the acidic dryness of the pomegranates, you're working with what would otherwise appear to be a sweet chutney. However, the cumin seeds and the black pepper blast this into a sauce that is perfect alongside lamb kofta, which is how we ate it.  Bonus, Summaya Usmani is a blogger at My Tamarind Kitchen, although her site seems a little quiet these days. That still won't keep us from looking at gorgeous older posts.

Serves 3-4


1 pint of raspberries
½ pomegranate, de-seeded
½ tsp freshly ground black peppercorns
½ tsp black or pink salt* 
½ tsp dry-roasted cumin seeds
juice of ½ a lime

*black salt is quite sulphurous to me; I used pink salt


1. Put the raspberries and pomegranate in a bowl and crush them using the back of a fork until mushy and the juice from the pomegranate mixes with the crushed raspberries.

2.  Add the spices, the salt, and the lime juices, and stir.  Serve cold and eat within 24 hours.