An Olfactory History of Cantaloupes

background, food, fresh

Cantaloupe sprouts smell like fully-formed cantaloupes when I water them. The air in the greenhouse is already heavy with moisture; the thermometer says 90 degrees by 9am. Water hits the rounded leaves and I smell it, soft and mellow, the scent of ripe melon. An orange dreamsicle, twin rockets melting to white on my hand. Cubed cantaloupe at breakfast, served in shallow yellow bowls beside plates of toast or bowls of cereal. My mother prepared the melon before we got up in the morning, cutting the wet fruit into uneven pieces, squaring the circle. On special occasions and some Sundays before church, she left the melon in fat wedges with the thin, bumpy rind still on and the tan seeds scooped out. A seed or two stuck like barnacles on boat hulls. We braced our hands on the sticky prows of the little gondolas and dug in. Spoons dripped with sweet juice. I loved paring away the creamy meat from the mottled shell. Even the strange rind tasted delicate: soft orange faded to crunchy green in one scoop. Vivid empty cantaloupe coracles joined the seeds in the compost pail after we finished our excavations.

The catalogues came in the mail. Pages of glossy color photos showed prime specimens with names like race horses. Ambrosia, Bush Star, Emerald Gem. Hale’s Best Jumbo. Healy’s Pride. Hearts of Gold. Petit Gris De Rennes, Pride of Wisconsin, Minnesota Midget.

The name Cantaloupe refers to a papal estate in Rome. Cantaloupo, allegedly a place where wolves gathered to sing, was the site of the melon’s arrival from Armenia, around 1739*. These lupine fruits are, in fact, muskmelons masquerading: cantaloupe, Australian rockmelon, South African spanspek, and sweet melon are all variations on the Cucumis melo theme. Two major differences exist in appearance. European cantaloupes (var. cantalupensis), have gray, ribbed hides while North American cantaloupes, (var. reticulatis), bear the familiar doily-decked look, all tan and pebbly. Regardless of texture, C. melo varieties fall into the family Cucurbitaceae. They are in good company with cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, zucchini, calabashes, bitter melons, and watermelons.

Choosing a good melon is essential. Too ripe, and the flesh is squishy and half-rotten; too firm, and it’s bland and dry. At the produce section of the local grocery store, Mom explained the technique. Hoist a likely candidate to check size and weight, then press your ear to its roundness and—knock. Yes, knock on it with your fist, as if it’s a door. A ripe melon echoes roundly, with firmness and depth. When I was little, I liked to hold the melon in my skinny arms and pretend it was a baby, or a pregnant belly. Feeling the weight. Once, when my sister was caught in the swift updraft of a panic attack, she sat at the dining room table and put a cantaloupe on her lap. The heaviness grounded her, she said. Later, someone bought her a weighted blanket.

Advice from the Farmer’s Almanac regarding cantaloupes**.
“Dry weather produces the sweetest melon.”
“Don’t be discouraged when the first blooms do not produce fruit.”

Something about adversity and perseverance. I will be in the greenhouse all day, all month, observing incremental alchemy so small and fervent I must use all of my senses. Water, heat, cloud. Chlorophyll, nitrogen. These sprouts hum with mute energy. I am their servant and progenitor. I protect them from heat and drought and neglect. I watch and wonder as they unfold. My charges, becoming more of themselves every moment, grow up. Sturdy stems stand in the humid air, producing soft orange smells I remember from my own childhood. Soon, the fragrant plants will produce tendrils and start climbing. Then, flowers; then, doors to be knocked on, weights to be carried, delicacies to taste.

Advice from the Witch’s Almanac regarding cantaloupes and their curative properties***. “Place six seeds, dried in the noon sun, underneath your pillow to ward off bad dreams.” “Rub cantaloupe rind on afflicted skin under a full moon to rid yourself of warts and blemishes.” “When anxious, grasp the melon with both hands. Count thrice and lift. Caress the surface as if stroking the face of a lover, or your own face in the mirror. Feel the nubbly texture; sense the hollow middle, the heavy moisture inside. Sit down, preferably on a chair that your grandmother sat in. Place the melon atop your thighs and wait. Breathe deeply, expanding your whole belly. Sit thus until the world slows down.”

When the fruit comes, it comes on fast. Melon season lasts many weeks: the warehouse overflows from mid-July until late August. The harvesters bring in bin after bin and I learn to recognize the varieties by their grooved hides—deeper furrows and a slight football shape means the sweeter, more flavorful kind. All my children. By the time we planted them, I had forgotten their names. I fantasize as I wash them and place them in boxes. This one looks like a Sweet Granite, or a Schoon’s Hard Shell. A crossbreed rumor; a genetic anomaly, fragile and full-flavored.

On a summer’s day in 1620, the Bishop of Rennes spotted a grey hue on his crop of cantaloupes. Curious, he knelt and peeked under the leaves. Three days later, the melons were ripe. He served the fruit at his birthday banquet and saved the seeds in an envelope labeled “Petit Gris De Rennes.” In 1886, W. Atlee Burpee opened a package from William Voorhees. Inside were twenty seeds and a letter, which extolled the virtues of a melon variety with a rich green rind that Voorhees had grown the summer prior—he called it the Emerald Gem, claiming it was “altogether unapproached in delicious flavor and luscious beyond description****.” Legend has it that Neil Young christened the Hearts of Gold variety while on tour in Michigan. After a set at Northwestern University, he played on a farm near Benton Harbor owned by Crazy Horse’s cousin’s stepdaughter. The farmer could only pay him in melons*****.

Morning and afternoon, at break time, I slice open orange miracles. I carve the seeds off the flesh with the tip of my knife, making the little boats clean like my mother did once. I pass my coworkers the half-moons running with juice. We sit on our haunches in the weeds, dripping.

We sweat and grin and devour, exhausted and sunblind. We toss the rinds behind us, dust to dust, compost on site. By September, I will no longer crave the taste. By November, the scent will be a memory.

CSA pack is on Tuesdays. With one hand, I shove the waxed cardboard along the conveyor belt; the other scoops brown paper bags of russet potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, and hot peppers from harvest totes. I need both hands for the cantaloupe. The sticker listing the contents of a stranger’s box calls for one melon: I rummage for the largest and nestle it between the red leaf lettuce and the eggplant. As I fold the box closed— left, right, tuck, tuck— and sign my initials on the side, I think of my sister pulling her chair up to the table.

*Fact. Trust me as far as you can throw a melon.
**Fact, pruned for relevance.
***Fiction. A wayward vine growing from the compost pile. Would you try these things if I said they were true?
****Fact. A quote from the Seed Savers’ Exchange catalogue.
*****Fiction. A name carved into a melon rind. Did you believe me?


By Dot Armstrong

Dot Armstrong is a queer, nonbinary freelance writer, movement artist, and farmer based in Brooklyn. They received a BA in English Literature and a BFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa. Their work has appeared in The Dance Enthusiast, The Daily Iowan, and Culturebot, among other publications.