This is the dish I’ve been waiting to make all summer. Watermelon sorbet…with the Sorbet Swirl yellow watermelon no less…has been on my recipe “to do” list since the moment I saw the baby melon vines in the lower field at that farm. You see, I have an addiction – one might go so far as to say a handicap. I drool at the very sight of a watermelon. It’s hereditary. The gene’s been in my family for generations. I even wrote a short story about it a few years back, honoring my dear old dad, a man who knows his melons! (Hey you with the sick mind! Knock it off!)
If you’re in a hurry, just skip down to the recipe at the bottom. You’ll definitely want to try it. If you’ve got a few minutes, enjoy this essay from my personal archives.
The Melon Man
Picturesque to a fault, the sun rises and sets over an old village in a valley between the foothills of the Appalachians as they run their course through Pennsylvania. In between its coming and going, a farmer on a hill puts in a full day of labor. Within the quiet of the twilight, he finds magic in the buds of rambling vines and the small round green fruits they produce that, with any luck and some fair weather will mature into large, gracious melons. This is the hope of a particular man, the Melon Man.
He has seen many changes in seasons over the course of his 60 some years of farming. He has seen more than one drought, more than one hailstorm, more than one field fire, more than one plentiful harvest, more than one perfect sunset. Still, there is nothing quite like tending his melon patch. It truly is a labor of love. And one of great patience.
Each spring, the Melon Man or his wife travel the 30 odd miles to the same Amish greenhouse where they pick out that year’s hopefuls. Each tiny plant comes in its own burlap, palm-sized pot, wet with the daily soakings of the shy Amish girls as they flit among the aisles. The infant leaves curl as they delicately cling to the fragile stems. All varieties are closely examined for general health and the likeliness for survival. These qualities, along with past performance in maintenance, size, taste, texture, and general aesthetic merit, are used to base the pivotal decision of which hybrid to go with for the year. Generally, one kind of cantaloupe, two or three kinds of watermelon, and one kind of honeydew are selected, resulting in the carting home of well over 60 plants.
Once home, the real task begins. First the melon patch must be prepared, plowed up for the soil to air and spread the rich, earthy smell it has fermented all winter. The earthworms come crawling out as their tubular homes are so rudely disturbed. They soon disappear to newly tunneled dwellings. Meanwhile, the baby melon plants continue to reside in their little burlap pots on the back side of the house where the sun and wind is not so harsh. Then the day comes when the Melon Man says it is time.
The trays of melons are carried down to the garden and each plant in its turn is plucked up and placed in its new home. With a hand spade, the Melon Man methodically hollows out a perfectly sized hole for each plant and gently tucks it in with soil snug around the still tender stem. As you can imagine, this process is not a speedy one, but it is no small reward to stand back at the end and see an entire plot of melon plants with the potential to produce hundreds of delicious fruits.
That potential is dependent upon the months to come and the attentiveness of the patch’s caregiver. The needs of each year’s crop are different according to the summer’s mood. This year was an unusually dry one. Each evening, in that enchanted twilight hour after he has finished the less pleasant chores of the day, the Melon Man nurses along his precious babies, providing water, weeding and, while I doubt he’d admit it, perhaps some pep talks too. Days and weeks transpire in this fashion, the tiny leaves unfurl and stretch themselves in the sun, the roots reach deeper for more sustenance, the vines run free, the buds come, the flowers blossom, the tiny green knobs appear to replace the shriveled blooms, and finally the real evidence of success begins to show in the swelling identifiable melons. The cantaloupes begin to display their fuzzy, intertwining veins over their tanning skins. The honeydews grow ever smoother and rounder as their yellow rinds pale. And the watermelons dominate the patch with their size and bold deep green strips slashing through their paler undertone.
Somehow May has not only come and gone, but also June, July and August. It is time to harvest – a time of glory and reward for the Melon Man. Yet it is the most crucial time as well. It is now that he must display his true skill in the field of melons, all puns withstanding. A melon has to be picked at just the right time to ensure it fulfills its purpose in life, which is to be as juicy and sweet as can be. A pocketknife becomes a handy tool for carving out a “plug”, a small square cut out of the rind to check the melon’s ripeness that can then be reinserted if the melon should not pass the test. The melons that have “slipped” their stems, or come off the vine on their own, are guaranteed goodness just waiting to be cut open. Knock on a melon and if the sound reverberates through the entire fruit with a hollow tone, you’ll know it’s time. Turn a melon over and look for its pale tanned belly. All these tricks of the trade help him gather in the melons. The very first melon of the season is celebrated as though a prodigal son has returned home. For the next month or so, a trickle of ripe melons becomes a torrent requiring a wheelbarrow and several trips between the patch and the root cellar where the melons are laid on the cool floor to await their turn to garnish the table.
The torrent slows as the season changes more definitely through September. Frost threatens to squelch what little life remains in the vines by October and only a few melons still linger in their cradle. Not wanting to risk loosing a single one, the Melon Man takes great care of the last of his harvest, creating a melon nursery under a few old blankets to keep the first frosts off until the melons have a chance to mature. And then, one cold evening, it is impossible to deny the end of the melon season any longer, and the last of the harvest is ceremoniously plucked and placed among the rows and rows of melons resting on the cellar floor beside the baskets of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions. A silhouette moves restlessly in the deepening dark, scouring the vines one last time to make sure none have been missed, and then stops to stand thoughtfully over the empty patch, contemplating another year’s coming and going. In the morning, the vines are ploughed under to become part of the soil that will nurse the next generation.
There may be momentary melancholy, but the fun is just beginning as there is enough melon to savor it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late night snack for a full month or more to come. Every year, the challenge is to see if at least one large watermelon can be convinced to stay in peak condition until the Melon Man’s birthday at the very end of October. Who needs birthday cake when you can have the red, juicy flesh of a perfectly ripened watermelon?
In truth, this melon patch on the hill is no large-scale, far-reaching production. Rather, it is a rare means to simple joy that produces not only melons, but also bountiful love, humor and generosity as the melons are happily passed out to family, friends and neighbors. The Melon Man is a very special man indeed…he’s my father and I learned all I know about melons from him.
– the end –
I guess this story might be a bit quirky if you don’t know my family, but I hope it has at least conveyed how important – even iconical – melons have been for me since my very first memories. You’ll be seeing more of them on here while they last! Also, if you didn’t already, check out Rachel’s Cantaloupe Gelato from last week…she may have married into the family but she’s as hooked as the rest of us now.
Adapted from Recipezarr.com
2/3 C. (scant) honey*
1/2 C. water
1/4 C. (scant) lemon juice
3+ C. watermelon
*Using honey makes the sorbet a little “creamier” in the sense that it won’t freeze into one giant ice cube later when you store it in the freezer. If you don’t have honey, use about a cup of regular white sugar since honey is sweeter than sugar.
Cook the honey, water and lemon juice together, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and chill in the freezer for about 10 minutes until cool.
Cut up the watermelon into chunks and remove all seeds. Puree in a blender or food processor until liquid. Stir into chilled syrup.
Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. What you don’t eat right away, pack into an airtight container and store in the freezer. Next time you are serving it, pull it out 5 minutes or more ahead of time to thaw a bit.
(makes 4 cups – halve the recipe if you have a small ice cream maker)