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by Louise Fiszer & Jeannette Ferrary

When people stand around melon counters, they can't help revealing something essential about their upbringing. There they are, melons in hand, thumping, sniffing, shaking, slapping, and listening. "My grandfather always said that watermelons must sound hollow," says one. "No, no. Dull and muffled, never hollow," contends another. "Casabas have no aroma," insists one casaba lover to another, whose horrified response-"The aroma is subtle; but it's there"--briefly threatens the tranquillity of the produce department.

If asked, practically no one hesitates to reveal his or her family wisdom about how to select the sweetest melon from among surrounding lookalikes. These tricks and hints are part of people's heritage, exchanged between generations at long summertime, corn-and-watermelon dinner tables. Whether or not they are "true," whether or not they work every time, is not important. The giving of melon information is the passing on of lore, a revelation about the color, shape, and flavor of one's family. It is what people say to each other: great-aunts to nieces, big cousins to little, uncles to everyone. Perhaps, in the long run, people eat sweeter melons because of it, but certainly they eat them more contentedly.

Hegemony among melons transcends family alliances to become regional and even national in proportion. The Crane melon, for example, is the pride of northern California, where a single family has produced it for generations, along with scientifically measured testimony about the melon's superior sweetness. There are even rumors that if anyone outside the family tries to grow this special melon, they will get warts, their soil will turn to sand, or both. The taste of the orange-fleshed French Charentais melon -- pale, lime-green, and smooth-skinned -- is said to haunt forever anyone who dares to savor it even once. The Ogen melon, a greenish-yellow cantaloupe, has tantalized many melon-sampling tourists in its native Israel.

It is difficult to be definitive about melons because there are so many of them. At a melon-tasting held in 1987 as part of northern California's annual Tasting of Summer Produce, growers presented more than 100 samples of melon varieties, beginning with Ambrosia, Ananas, and Angelina and proceeding through Jubilee, Kharbooseh, and Marble White on down to Sharlynn, Tender Gold, and Yellow Doll. There is even a Santa Claus melon --so named because it ripens in December--and a Snap Melon that snaps open when ripe.

Of the entire showing, the most startling were the watermelons. Perhaps nothing is so shocking as learning that not all watermelons are red. But proof positive lies in such varieties and hybrids as the apricot-fleshed Sweet Siberian, yellow-fleshed Gold Baby, and white-fleshed Crystal. Watermelons may also be small or round or splotched with starlike patterns. Similarly, purists would have us believe that even our beloved, practically all-American cantaloupes are not "true" cantaloupes but rather muskmelons. To add to the confusion, bitter melons and winter melons are really vegetables, and carambolas, also known as tree melons, can be used exactly like legitimate melons. But none of these last three belongs to the official melon family. Eating, as always, is believing.

And that is probably the best thing to do with a ripe, sweet melon, though, of course, it can also be cut into chunks or sliced and wrapped with a sliver of prosciutto or fussed up into balls for a fruit salad, or pureed for a fruit soup. The seeds can be dried and eaten as snacks, and the rind of watermelons even makes a delicious pickle. Melon flesh can be dried and stored, like fruit leather, and can be reconstituted.

Melons have been around for thousands of years, judging from ancient Egyptian paintings and from the dating of melon seeds. Claims for their specific birthplace include Africa, Persia (Iran), and India (there is a Sanskrit word for "melon"). The Romans enjoyed melons, which were only about the size of an orange at the time. Most of Europe came to know melons through the Spanish Moors.

Melons arrived in America with the slave trade, although the first melon seeds were said to have been planted by the Columbus expedition in 1494. Apparently, it took another 400 years for anyone to plant them again on a large scale in this country, which has only cultivated melons commercially for the last century. Today, the country's major producers include Florida, Texas, Georgia, and California.

Consumer And Cooking Guide

Market Selection
Green-and orange-fleshed honeydew, Persian, Canari, cantaloupe, Crenshaw, casaba, Sharlynn, Calsweet watermelon, and Yellow Doll watermelon. Except for watermelons, blossom ends should yield to gentle pressure and melons should be aromatic. Good, tasty watermelons can be recognized more easily because they are generally precut. Flesh should be vividly colored, and very little underside should be visible.

Depending on variety, sporadically all year

Unripe whole melons may be kept in a paper bag at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. Ripe melons should be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Flavor Enhancers
Mint, lemon juice

I pound of melon = 1 cup, cubed

Nutritional Value
Most melons are a good source of vitamin C.
Melons with deep orange or red flesh are rich in vitamin A.
80 calories per 1/2 cantaloupe
50 calories per wedge of honeydew
110 calories per 1-inch slice of watermelon

Melon and Currant Chutney
makes about 3 cups

2 medium onions, chopped
1 cup currants
2 cups tightly packed brown sugar
2 cups cider vinegar
1 teaspoon pickling spice
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 cups cubed melon flesh (cantaloupe or Persian)

Place all the ingredients except the melon in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, simmer for about 1 hour, or until thick. Stir in the melon and cook for another half hour. Let cool; store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.

Mixed Melon and Shrimp Cocktail
serves 6

3 cups assorted melon balls 24 large prawns, cooked and shelled
1 1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar

Combine the dressing ingredients until smooth. In separate bowls, toss half the dressing with melon and half with shrimp. Let marinate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Divide the melon among six goblets and place four shrimp in each, with tails overhanging the edge.

Melon Wrapped in Pancetta
serves 6 as a first course

12 melon wedges (cantaloupe, Persian, or honeydew), 1 1/2 inches thick, peeled
2 teaspoons dried thyme
12 thin slices pancetta
Preheat the grill.

Sprinkle the melon with the thyme and wrap each wedge in a slice of pancetta. Place a skewer through each wrapped melon wedge to secure and to facilitate turning.

Place on a hot grill and cook on both sides, until the pancetta is golden-brown. Serve hot or warm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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