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25 april 2016
Sylvia Lovegren begins her global history of melons with anecdotes about melons she's eaten, melons that seemed to her ambrosial, insipid, or horrific. I don't know if I've ever had a truly ambrosial melon, and I haven't had many horrific melon experiences. Most of the melon I eat these days comes on pre-fab fruit trays that my university provides via its food service, trays that aim at the lowest common culinary denominator. Melons are kosher and halal; they lack meat and gluten, fat and alcohol and caffeine and allergens – and most often, when employed as the fruit of last resort, they lack all flavor. I'm hyposmic to begin with, and half the time all I perceive of a chunk of melon is some liquid, a yielding texture, and a faint sweetness.
So before I read Melon, my typical association with melons was "meh, honeydew again." But Lovegren's prose has made me reimagine melons with a certain longing. As in so much of life, ripeness is all. If I am underwhelmed by the modern melon, it's because no fruit is ever out of season anymore. It's April and a huge display of watermelons sits at the entrance to my local supermarket. They're grown in Mexico and they're kind of mushy. These guys are small, billed as "personal" watermelons, which is frankly kind of creepy. They're supposedly seedless, though actually their seeds are just small enough so you can't pick them out of the flesh without destroying it, and just large enough to be irritatingly gritty. American demand for a seasonless, climate-controlled attitude toward food has produced fruit that lies at a mediocre distance between wonder and horror.
But when melons are picked locally, in season, in an ideal climate where cultivar meshes with terroir, they're pretty special. Lovegren conveys a long worldwide fascination with various cultures' favorite melons: watermelons on the one hand, "sweet melons" on the other (the same species includes cantaloupes, muskmelons, honeydew, and all the less-familiar yellowish, reddish, and greenish Old World fruit). They're distantly related to cucumbers and even more distantly to New World squash; they're associated with southern Africa, Egypt, Italy, the south of France, the Silk Road, China, Japan.
Americans associate watermelon so indelibly with our own culture – as summer treat, Southern staple, or even, unfortunately, as malicious racial stereotype – that it comes as a surprise to learn of the long and truly global history of the watermelon. A friend of mine once taught me the Greek word for watermelon, karpousi. I thought it was quaint that the Greeks had thought up a word for something American. But Lovegren taught me that karpousi is a word probably older than Anglo-America. She is fascinated by melon etymology, and traces many melon terms back to ancient Asian languages. Karpousi comes from Persian, via Turkish, and via transfer from its original sense of "sweet melon" (29).
Melons are romantic and exotic. Like many cultivated foods, they have evolved under artificial selection (with a dash of fortuitousness) to grow predictably, travel well, and yield both flesh and seeds that are amenable to preservation. Americans tend to eat melon fresh out of hand (or rather with a plastic fork from a plastic tray), or occasionally in the form of pickled watermelon rind. Lovegren charts the history of dried melon (often transported in the form of a braided kind of jerky) and melon seeds, roasted for snacks or ground into flour.
She includes recipes that range from amazing to positively outré. I am going to wait till Texas "cantaloupes" come in late this summer to try her Armenian recipe for muskmelon dolma. This involves making a filling with melon flesh, onion, ground meat, rice, raisins, nuts, and spices, and then packing the hollowed-out melon shells you took the flesh from with the filling, and baking the stuffed shells.
Easier will be Lovegren's recipe for a Greek salad of watermelon, mint, and feta cheese, splashed with a little balsamic vinegar and black pepper. I've already tried that as a thought experiment.
What I needed to try hands-on was a Sicilian watermelon pudding. I got one of those Mexican personal watermelons. The seeds were not a problem because the instructions were to puree and strain the flesh, yielding several cups of juice. The pudding is very simple: just boil the juice with cornstarch and sugar, whisk in a little cinnamon, and cool. But the recipe says to start with "half" the sugar, and then never says when to add the other half. I winged it and it turned out OK. The result is a lovely pink non-dairy custard, very watermelony, with most of its sweetness from the fruit. Lovegren says to add dark chocolate shavings to represent the seeds you've strained away. The resulting dessert is a triumph of artifice.
Lovegren, Sylvia. Melon: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2016.