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Charity’s Column: The wonderful, mysterious, volatile melon

Last week, I bought a large cantaloupe at a farmstand in Riverhead, hefted it into my Subaru, and drove east.

Hitting the brakes at a stoplight, I realized the melon was unconfined, rolling around the back like a loose cannon. Every time I slowed or turned, it lurched across the car.  By the time I stopped, the bag of tender meringue cookies I bought was crumbs, and several pounds of tomatoes lay bleeding and broken.

The melon was intact, but it doesn’t always go so well. On July 17, Chinese media reported a watermelon randomly exploded at a supermarket in northern China, an event that was captured on video. The footage showed the melon pop open and spray red juice and chunks of fruit. No one was injured, but it was a big enough mess to make international news.

Susan Carey Dempsey has some experience with the ripe melon that is essentially an undetonated bomb. As a kid, she was a counselor at a camp on Congdon Road for adults with disabilities. She and another counselor set out to help out the cook, by moving a large watermelon.

“We began a play fight over who should carry the watermelon, and since neither of us could get a good hold, it fell to the floor, immediately reduced to red chunks and mush.” The head counselor wrote a satirical accident report on the melon-carnage. Susan says she can’t forget the lurid sight. “I’ve done my best to avoid kitchens since then,” she said. “But despite the melan-choly experience, it gave me a laugh to recall it.”

Just last week Rachel Lucas had a beautiful watermelon from her CSA roll out of her trunk. “It really was a miracle, it didn’t crack open, and it was still perfectly delicious!” She said she’s learned a lesson about trying to carry too many groceries at once.

Jonathan Russo and Deborah Grayson also have a story of melon transportation with a happy ending. Jonathan decided to come home from the market by bicycle with a melon zipped into his backpack. The backpack would not completely close around it, and he didn’t notice it had fallen out until he got home, melon-less. He retraced his path and found it — intact — by the side of the road. They refer to it as the melon miracle.

Tim Purtell remembers participating in Labor Day events at the Heights Beach Club in which children were set loose on a large watermelon anointed with something slippery. The watermelon transportation competition was known as a greased watermelon contest. “It was chaos. Our hands, arms, and chests were covered with Vaseline.” He doesn’t remember who won, only that the captured melons were cut up and eaten.

Marcia Bayard spends most Saturday mornings at the Havens Farmers Market holding down the 8 Knots booth, so she’s seen a lot of melons go by on their way to somewhere. For transporting melons, she’s partial to a classic French-net market tote. She claims to be able to fit two or three melons in a single string tote, and leaves them in the device to ripen at home.

If you think getting them home is tricky, you should try growing them. Lisa Shaw is a scholar of melon-growing, attempting year after year to produce cucurbitaceae as she correctly calls them, and for the most part, failing. In her melon patch, the main problem is the chipmunks, and groundhogs that take single bites, “rendering the fruit gastronomically unappealing.”

So far, the biggest watermelon she’s ever grown was four inches in diameter, “Not a hearty serving by the time you take the peel off.” Their groundhog, Josephine, was recently removed to “greener pastures” and Lisa has hopes for next year.

Melon lovers are often perplexed about ripening issues. I’ve heard that cantaloupe is ripe when it’s soft at the bottom, which is helpful only if you know which end is the bottom. I’ve also heard you should sniff the blossom-end of a melon, and if it smells a little sweet, the melon is ready. Since the blossom is no longer present, you’ll have to use your imagination to figure out which end to sniff, and which end to squeeze.

Marcia Bayard turns her nose up at the sniff test for melon ripeness because it only works on cantaloupes; honeydews and watermelons don’t have much fragrance until they’re cut. Instead, she knocks. If she gets a hollow sound, it’s ripe, and a melon that’s heavy for its size, whether it’s a cantaloupe or watermelon, is always the sign of a juicier melon. It’s also a sign of a melon that could be about to blow.

Whether you sniff, squeeze, or use a divining rod, one thing is for sure, the supply of local melons will end with summer, and that end is in sight. Barrie Silver said the only constant in her melon experience is the inability to choose a ripe (or even edible) one.

“I have been tutored by experts in the art of pushing, smelling and weighing, all to no avail.” When she has a hankering for melon she said, “I eat a jelly donut.”