Summertime Means Eating Melon

When eating melon, remember that the juicy treat is actually quite nutritious. Try different melon varieties to get the wide range of colors, flavors and nutrients found in the numerous types of melons available today.

| August/September 2013

Melon lovers are lucky they don’t live in the 15th century. Ken Albala, author of Eating Right in the Renaissance, writes, “Nothing in the Renaissance mind could be considered more delicious and dangerous than a sweet, ripe, juicy melon.” In Food: The History of Taste, Paul Freedman proposes that this fear of eating melon in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance may have existed precisely because melons are so sweet and delectable — an uncommon delicacy in a time when good health was equated with a balance of the body’s “humours.” If you did indulge in eating melon, it was deemed important to also eat counterbalancing foods to correct the dangers of melon. For example, one Renaissance writer suggested combining melon with salty meats, such as prosciutto, and cheeses. The pairing has stood the test of time.

Melon’s sweetness also lends itself to savory dishes that feature hot spices, such as ginger, chiles or black pepper. The refreshing quality of melons makes them a good foil for rich cream and nuts. Melon purées work well in cocktails made with sweet liqueurs and sparkling wines. Citrus, especially lime juice, boosts the honeyed notes in many melons.

All melons are high in vitamins, especially vitamin C, and contain some soluble fiber and numerous trace nutrients. Many are high in potassium and carotenoids, and red-fleshed watermelons have more of the antioxidant lycopene than tomatoes.

Types of Melons

Melons belong to three main families. Muskmelons, which include the American cantaloupe, are aromatic with a roughly netted skin that should be washed before being cut. European cantaloupes, or true cantaloupes, have easily recognizable dark green grooves in their gray-green skins. Hard-rinded and less aromatic winter melons, such as honeydews and casabas, are ready to eat in late summer and fall. You’ll also find numerous crosses among these groups — such as Crenshaws, which are a cross of casaba and cantaloupe.

Watermelons constitute a fourth, botanically unrelated group, and nearly all parts of the fruit are edible. Try roasting the seeds or pickling the rind, minus the hard green skin, for snacks. Fermentation expert Sandor Katz writes that he prefers watermelon rind pickles over cucumber pickles.

The hundreds of variously colored and textured melon varieties available today range in flavor from vegetal and cucumber-y (‘Golden Beauty,’ a casaba) to heavily honeyed (‘Charentais,’ a European cantaloupe). Their texture can be crisp (watermelons) or creamy (‘Sharlyn,’ a hybrid of cantaloupe and honeydew). Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers 150 open-pollinated melon varieties, including several that grow well almost anywhere.

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