2,000 years of melons and one very bad joke
BY AMY PENNINGTON
When I was a little girl, I briefly wanted to marry a cantaloupe. The love affair began with my father’s silly knock-knock joke involving a kid-friendly punch-line: “I can’t elope tonight, my father took the ladder,” and ever since then I was hooked. My parents gave us kids free rein in the kitchen, and I had the freedom to fry my own bacon, make pudding (thanks My T Fine!) and wield razor-sharp knives to slice cantaloupe, which I ate by the pound. I loved cantaloupe so much that I snubbed honeydew melons when my mom first brought them home. It felt like I was cheating.
It was with much pleasure a few years ago, when whilst shopping at Seattle’s Columbia City Farmer’s Market I stumbled upon a farm stand set back in the corner. It wasn’t the line of hungry-looking shoppers that caught my eye; rather it was the deep bin of melons. Watermelons, cantaloupes and honeydews were piled high and calling my name.
Melons, which are members of the Cucurbitaceae plant family, have a long history of culinary uses dating back at least 2,000 years.Their cultivation can be traced to Persia, India and Africa. The muskmelon genus (Cucumis melo) is home to countless exotics—far more than the two standards found in American grocery stores, which are typically the thick-rind, heavily webbed North American cantaloupe (Cucumis melo reticulatus), and the smooth, pale honeydew (Cucumis melo inodorus). Around the world, Cucumis melo is more renowned for its less sturdy, more flavorful varieties: The musky, juicy Charentais, the charmingly-named “Queen Anne’s pocket melon” and the recently rediscovered Montreal muskmelon are all members of this delicious genus.
Melons come in a rainbow of shapes and sizes—some as small as the palm of your hand, some long and slim, like a banana. The flesh ranges in color from the cantaloupe-orange of a Charentais, to sweet yellow-fleshed watermelons. Some have soft white fruit when you slice them open, as you’ll find in some Casabas, which are almost watery-sweet, as if holding back and daring you to eat more.
The only trouble with such a large family of melons to choose from is, well, choosing. Actually growing your own fruit is not an easy task west of the Cascades. When growing melons in the Pacific Northwest, gardeners should select shorter-season varieties, like the Jenny Lind Muskmelon, which can bear fruit in 80 days. The help of a cloche to keep melon plants warm at night is a good idea, too. You’ll do well to plant melons amongst flowers, not only satisfying an organic crop rotation, but inviting crucial pollinators to your plants.
If all this seems like too much of a bother (and believe me, it is), then head to your local farmer’s markets, where in July and August melons roll in from Eastern Washington. Most vendors will sell the typical cantaloupe or the fancier-sounding French Charentais (a favorite of many chefs and food lovers, myself included), but if you look carefully, you’ll stumble upon some hidden gems.
Tonnemaker Family Orchards sits just over the Vantage Bridge out by Royal City, and has been the only family to farm on their 132-acre stretch off the cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge. Each year they organically plant about thirty varieties of melons. Ten of these are considered experimental, which calls to mind rows and rows of odd-shaped and exotic tasting melons grown just for the fun of it.
“When I found out that we could grow them, I loved (the idea). I love melons,” said Kole Tonnemaker, one of two brothers running the farm. Kole is in charge of running the land, while his brother, Kurt is in charge of getting all the goods to market. Kole’s professed love of melons is evident as varieties and seed names drop out of his mouth as if they’re common speech. Within minutes, I know he doesn’t prefer the Canary melons (“Last year I had one and thought ‘Man, this juice is almost like syrup.'”) and he gives me a tip for making cantaloupe popsicles in summer.
While the Tonnemakers aren’t entirely forthcoming with the specific names of all the melons they have on their grow list this year (melons are a lot of work, and they consider their time invested in discovering ‘new’ varieties as proprietary R&D), they will bring somewhere between 20 to 25 varieties to market. They have experimented with rare seeds like some Asian and Persian melons, and have tried several heirlooms, though “until you see them, you don’t know what they’ll look like,” and they are often the ones to fail. The Tonnemakers take care to bring their fruit to market when they are perfectly ripe, as melons don’t store or travel well, being prone to bruising.
Mild bruising or not, melons can be used in creative ways once you’ve got them home safe and sound. They are a healthy snack, full of antioxidants, but can be used as more than something to dice up and nibble. Melons can easily be juiced for use in cocktails or frosty summer drinks. The subtle flavor is a good companion to vodka, or you can make a quick and pretty sangria by cubing up some cantaloupe and peaches, and pouring chilled rose over them. Chilled soup is another melon winner—I once made an out-of-this-world version with honeydew and cucumber garnished with green chilies and cilantro. Watermelon goes well with savory additions, such as basil or mint leaves and some crumbled feta cheese for an easy salad course.
Today, as I’ve nurtured my fascination with melons for well over 30 years, I’ve grown picky, and consider myself a near Melon Expert. I can sniff the blossom-end to see if a melon is perfectly musky and ripe, or if it needs a few more days. My olfactory glands are fine tuned to just-the-right amount of sweetness and earth that comes from a freshly-picked melon. Come to my house on a hot summer day, and it’s near certain that I’ll serve you slices of room temperature melon, in bowls and with plenty of extra napkins. It’s just the kind of lady I’ve grown up to be: The melon-eatin’ kind.
Amy Pennington thinks of her father’s cantaloupe/can’t elope joke every time she hears the word cantaloupe. To see what else she has in the ground and on her plate, check out her gardening and cooking website, amy-pennington.com/go-go-green-garden.