One Ingredient: Melon

Melon Illustration.png

Illustration by Edgar Stewart / Photos by Michael Piazza / Styled by Rachel Caldwell

Most of the melon we eat in New England doesn’t really taste like anything. Picked unripe and shipped here from Mexico or Guatemala, it adds cheap bulk to sad, seasonless fruit salads. Have you ever poked around a fruit salad for a stray berry, a little slice of kiwi—any chance at some concentrated flavor—and found whitish melon chunks in a shallow pool of sticky sludge, the good stuff long taken? Cold and slippery, vaguely sweet: When melon is bad, it’s bad.

Even a good melon is a little obvious, a little on the nose. Not many fruits that grow this far north get as sugary sweet, with such succulent texture. Take watermelon, with its icy crunch like a just-melting popsicle; it’s no wonder unsophisticated little kids like my son go at it like wild animals. We tend not to revere foods that are big, round and cheap—cabbage, for instance, isn’t exactly sexy. Melon is, though, almost embarrassingly so. Bracing and fragrant, bountiful and lush, there’s no better food in the hottest months of the year. Given a chance to ripen, it makes a tremendous case for local eating.

Melon is the name we give sweet fruits (botanically, berries) in the gourd family: One vine bears muskmelons, including cantaloupe and honeydew; the other bears watermelon. Originating in Persia, depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs, muskmelons were among the first species brought to the new world by Columbus. Dozens of cultivars proliferate worldwide and go by as many names; here we mostly grow two: cantaloupe and honeydew. The netted varieties like cantaloupe, with their reticulated skins and heady aromas, ripen earlier. They’re ready for harvest when they give off a sweet, fruity odor. Smooth-skinned, mild-flavored varieties like honeydew are sometimes called winter melons but it’s relative: They can’t tolerate frost, either. They’re ready when heavy, giving slightly when pressed at the root end.

Watermelon originated nearly 5,000 years ago in West Africa. Giant vines bearing up to a hundred melons each provided a critical water source to indigenous desert-dwellers in the Kalahari. Merchant ships brought the fruit to China and the Mediterranean; European colonists and enslaved people brought it to the New World. By 1629, watermelon was grown here in Massachusetts. The small, round ones favored by colonists still do best here— they’re ripe when their undersides turn a bit yellow.

In the field, muskmelons nestle shyly in their rows, shielded by leaves; at harvest watermelon fields are almost comically abundant, ungainly spheres dotting the landscape like soccer practice. Both require ample space for their trailing vines and all-day sun to warm the soil. In our short, cool growing season with its risk of September frost, early-maturing varieties fare best. The hardiest varieties are most familiar: cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon. But at peak melon season toward the end of summer, we get the more delicate heirloom and hybrid varieties: smooth yellow melons like tangy Canary or Crenshaw, with its sweet peachy flesh; fancy netted varieties like floral Charlyn and Charentais.

You don’t have to do anything to this fruit to enjoy it. There’s not much you can do to improve it; it’s sublime all on its own. But melons are generous. You can buy one, gorge on fat slices at breakfast and still assemble an elegant dinner salad with the other half. There’s plenty to go around. These are hot-weather recipes. A breeze to prepare, they let you relax and let the melon shine. They’re grown-up food but not too refined, meant to encourage the messy pleasure, the unbridled joy of a giddy, sticky-faced kid in summer, T-shirt soaked in pink juice.

This story appeared in the Summer 2019 issue.