Real Food Encyclopedia | Melons

Culinary historians cannot agree about the melon’s point of origin. Was it Persia (Iran), as Waverley Root asserted in his encyclopedic “Food” or Africa, as Jonathan Roberts argues in “Cabbages and Kings”? Or was it Afghanistan, as others have claimed?

What we do know is that the melon is the stuff of antiquity. Its first documented citation, says Root, appears in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, dating to 2500 BCE By 300 BCE, Greek scholars, including Pliny the Elder, were taking note of melopepo, followed by Galen the physician a century later. We know that melon seeds made it to China around this time, but it would be centuries more before melons would take hold in western Europe.

During his travels during the 11th and 12th centuries, explorer Marco Polo wrote of his experience of melons in Afghanistan, claiming them as the “best in the world.”

Many scholars agree that Christopher Columbus brought melon seeds to Haiti in 1493. Muskmelons (and to a lesser degree, cantaloupes) were being discovered and discussed among colonial American gardeners and botanists. American John Custis, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson living in Williamsburg, Virginia, observed in 1737 the “multitude of melons” growing in his slaves’ gardens. By the mid-1800s, the Navajo Indians were growing melons on reservations in the southwest. Commercial melon production in the US kicked off sometime in the 1880s.

<<View All Real Food Encyclopedia Entries

Fun Facts about Melons:

  • In “De Re Coquinaria”(On the Subject of Cooking), first century Roman gastronome Apicius includes a savory recipe for melon, simmered with vinegar, honey, ground pepper and parsley, plus something referred to as Liquamen, the ancient Roman version of fish sauce.
  • Muskmelon (referred to as pepone) was among the dozens of plants in Capitulare de Villis, an imperial to-do list of sorts mandated by Charlemagne (Charles the Great) for his many estates around Europe during the 9th
  • The cantaloupe is named after Cantalupo, a town near Rome, where melon seeds from Armenia were grown on papal estates, probably around the early 16th century, according to Waverley Root in his compendium “Food.”
  • At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson grew muskmelons in his gardens as did his slaves in their own plots.
  • In the 1825 gastronomic treatise “Physiology of Taste,” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that melons were edible only at their peak moment of ripeness, “as soon as they have reached all the perfection to which they are destined.”

What to Look for When Buying Melons

The muskmelon is defined by a netting or webbed exterior. A true cantaloupe has more of a warty, rough skin. Both can be as small as a soft ball and as large as a volleyball. Flesh can be pale orange, salmon pink or green. Its relatives in the C. melo indorus group – honeydew, casaba and Santa Claus, to name a few – are all smooth-skinned with flesh that is white, pale yellow or pale green. Size can vary in this group, too; we recently saw a Santa Claus melon the size of a mango, and saw a honeydew as big as a soccer ball.

When shopping, you want to look for a melon that is free of nicks or cuts in the rind and mold on the blossom end. No soft spots, please. Give it a tap; it should sound a bit like a drum and should feel heavy in your hand.  Finally, use your nose; a melon that is perfectly ripe or on its way should smell like flowers and honey.

Sustainability of Melons

Conventional cantaloupe has a relatively low pesticide load, earning the “Clean 15” designation in the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which calls out produce with the highest pesticide load.

But cantaloupe has had more than its share of food safety scares in recent years. Contaminated cantaloupe from a Colorado farm was the source of a multi-state listeria outbreak in 2011. Thirty-three people died and 147 people fell ill in 28 states, one of the deadliest foodborne outbreaks in nearly 100 years.

And in 2012, two people died and 141 were hospitalized in connection with salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes grown in Indiana. In the wake of these outbreaks, California cantaloupe growers implemented a rigorous food safety program that includes mandatory government audits.

To date, the honeydew and its relatives in the winter melon (or C. melo indorus) group have escaped the wrath of foodborne illness; some argue that the net-like rind of the muskmelons is inviting to pathogens and increase the risk of contamination.

Melons and Geography

China is the top producing melon country, followed by Turkey and Iran. In the US, California supplies about three-fourths of the country’s commercial output, followed by Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida.

Melon Seasonality

Melon needs the heat of the sun ­– and lots of it –­ in order to deliver its promise of sweet succulence. In three- or four-season climates, that means melon shows up from mid to late summer, when nights are still mild. It thrives only in the presence of heat and relatively dry conditions. Once the autumn rains come, you can kiss those melons goodbye.

Eating Melons

Storing Fresh Melon

In the spirit of eating melon in the moment, keep whole melons out of the refrigerator, especially if it needs a day or two of ripening.  Wash the exterior under running water just before eating; melon has a tendency to mold, so washing in advance will just hasten the decay. Leftover cut melon should be refrigerated and stored in a container with an airtight lid. The safest bet is to remove all rind to minimize risk of cross-contamination.

Cooking with Melons

Whether eaten raw or cooked, muskmelon, above all, needs your attention sooner rather than later. It is highly perishable and can morph from honeyed morsels with a heady perfume to a fermentation crock that smells like dirty socks in the span of an afternoon. Don’t waste any time!

Cooking with Less Waste

Like its cousin the watermelon, muskmelon is by weight more than 90 percent water, making it an excellent thirst quencher. Try using it in smoothie or aqua fresca recipes.

Other than fruit salad or all by its lonesome over the sink, would you ever consider roasting muskmelon, as the folks behind “The Joy of Cooking” recommend? Serve it over ice cream or with other roasted fruits.

Melon lovers also like it savory; try it with a few grinds of pepper, a little salt and/or with prosciutto.

Preserving Melons

If you want to extend the shelf life of your melon, try swapping cantaloupe for cucumbers in and make cantaloupe pickles, mixed in a ginger and cinnamon-scented brine.

Melon Nutrition

Muskmelon is good food-as-medicine. One cup of muskmelon provides the daily recommended amounts for Vitamins A and C, a decent source of potassium, folate and fiber, all for about 54 calories. It also contains small amounts of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. The pigments in the pastel-orange flesh are rich in beta-carotene and several other disease-fighting antixodants.