“‘Sinbad went on in this manner, with his narrative — ‘I thanked the man-animal for its kindness, and soon found myself very much at home on the beast, which swam at a prodigious rate through the ocean; although the surface of the latter is, in that part of the world, by no means flat, but round like a pomegranate, so that we went — so to say — either up hill or down hill all the time.’’’
- Edgar Allan Poe, “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade”
Edgar Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809. After his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment, Poe moved in with Francis and John Allan, the latter a successful merchant who dealt in tobacco, grain, spice, and slaves. Poe’s writing career developed slowly: as a young man, he enrolled at the University of Virginia to study language and poetry but left after one semester. He entered West Point as an officer’s cadet, quickly failed out, and began writing for a number of small periodicals and literary journals. In 1827, he anonymously published a collection of poems in the Baltimore North American, the same year he self-published his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems.
In 1835, he married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm: she died of tuberculosis two years after “The Raven” became an immediate success in 1845. 1850 saw the publication of “A Thousand and Two Nights,” a satire of the popular collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales called Arabian Nights, also known as The Thousand-and-One Nights. The original story features a jealous king who sentences his wives to death the day after their weddings. Aware of the king’s intentions, his latest wife, Scheherazade, begins to tell the king a story on the night of their marriage, compelling him to postpone her death until the next day so that she can finish the tale. Scheherazade continues to tell her tales for 1001 nights – although some editions contain only a few hundred tales and other contain far more than the title suggests – and thus evades her own death.
In Poe’s version, the narrator has discovered a long-lost book, entitled Tellmenow Isitsoornot, that depicts the “real” story of Scheherazade. In this version, the young wife becomes overconfident in her storytelling abilities. On the thousand and second night, she spins a fantastic new tale featuring Sinbad, a favorite protagonist described in the original set of stories. Sinbad travels to foreign lands and encounters scores of exotic beasts; as each episode becomes more extraordinary, the king becomes less able to suspend his disbelief, and the next morning, he orders Scheherazade to death. The irony of Poe’s story is found in the footnotes, where we learn that the wonders Sinbad encounters in his travels are all things and places that actually exist: petrified forests, plants that take their nourishment directly from the air, and women with large humps attached to their backsides (i.e. bustles) were all strange but real phenomenon that existed in Poe’s day. As Poe notes in the “old saying” that serves as the epigraph of the story, “[t]ruth is stranger than fiction.”
Pomegranates, mentioned in Poe’s story and featured in today’s recipe, were first cultivated in the Middle East, quickly spreading into China and Mediterranean (the city of Granada in southern Spain was named for them). The fruits have been depicted in art and literature for almost two thousand years and appear in nearly all of the major traditional religious doctrines. In Greek mythology, when the goddess Persephone eats forbidden pomegranate seeds, Hades sentences her to spend a portion of each year in the Underworld; Demeter, goddess of the harvest and Persephone’s mother, refuses to let anything grow in her daughter’s absence and thus, creates the seasons. Pomegranates are mentioned in the Koran as one of the gifts of Allah, and in the Jewish faith, the 613 seeds of the fruit are said to represent the 613 commandments of the Torah (although the actual amount of seeds per fruits varies between 200-1200). In Christian doctrine, some believe that Eve was tempted with a pomegranate – rather than an apple – in the Garden of Eden. The pomegranate often appears in literature as a symbol of birth, fertility, and royalty (the calyx of the pomegranate even resembles a serrated crown). Pomegranate fruits are delicious, fun to eat, and ridiculously expensive unless you’re fortunate enough to have trees growing in your backyard (and living in the desert, many of my friends and neighbors do).
It has been almost a month since I’ve published a post, and when I finally return, I bring you this somewhat unappetizing-looking pomegranate sheet cake with lime glaze. I followed the recipe exactly, so I’m not sure why the glaze in the recipe’s photo is so pretty and pale, while mine looks like a thick layer of Pepto-Bismol. Please don’t let the color keep you from trying out the cake recipe, though: while the glaze completely missed the mark in both presentation and flavor, the cake itself was incredible. My husband and I both agreed that it was maybe one of the best cakes we’ve ever tasted: fruity, moist, and not so sweet that it couldn’t be eaten for breakfast (and, believe me, we ate it for breakfast).
Posts should soon be appearing more regularly: my doctoral exams have been passed (!) and the fall semester is drawing quickly to a close. Hopefully my baking skills – which appear to have gotten a bit rusty – will warm back up in time for the holiday season. Until next time (if I’m lucky)…