Foreward from The Melon
Melons are a lifelong love and calling. They stir passions and memories in me. When I taste the cream of the crop, I can picture my parents swooning over similarly luscious fruits at meals during my childhood. Lillian and Sol were melon mavens: Mom had a thing for watermelon while Dad went for green-fleshed casaba. At our home on the North Shore of Long Island, I planted my first vegetable patch when I was eighteen. Paul, our Italian gardener, gave me lessons on how to sow melon seeds in the greenhouse, when to usher plants out into cold frames, and which techniques to use in the open field. I have so many happy memories of melon-filled summers. It was enormously gratifying to put homegrown food on the table, and I came to realize that I have a knack. I took a few years off from gardening during my graduate school days in Oklahoma, but ever since I’ve had melons in my life and garden. Today I work three vegetable plots on our place in the Hudson Valley of New York. And I keep my family—Cary, Sara, Martin, and Thomas—well supplied with heirloom foods. In late August, when we’ve had our fill of melon, we deliver surplus fruit in carefully arranged gift baskets to nearby loved ones and a local food pantry.
Much like practicing psychology (which I did for seven years), and raising children, gardening is about nurturing growth. In 1998, having won more than enough blue ribbons in vegetable growing competitions, and being at loose ends, I naturally decided to try my hand at garden writing. With fingers crossed, I sent one of my famous melon-filled baskets to an acquaintance at Garden Design. She must have liked the contents since the magazine sent a renowned photographer up to my garden a short time later, and I received a contract to write a 250-word piece on melons and their culture. “Globe Theater” was published the following year with Mick Hales’s images of my babies on the vine: Queen Anne’s Pocket Melon, Prescott Fond Blanc cantaloupe, and Moon and Stars watermelon. (You haven’t heard the last of them.) Friends planted a seed in my head about writing a book on my favorite topic. So I gave it a shot and wrote a proposal. Emma Sweeney, my literary agent, found a happy home for the book at Artisan: They published Melons for the Passionate Grower in 2002.
Why write another book about melon? The short answer is that I have grown and learned a lot more. Ten years after the first book was published, I decided to do another. From 2012 through 2018, I took great pleasure in cultivating the fruits, having them photographed, and doing the detective work on varietal descriptions for The Melon. I delved deep into the historical record including my own antiquarian book and catalogue collection (amassed for just such a purpose), made ample use of online resources unavailable at the turn of the century, and called upon talented archivists in a number of horticultural libraries. The writings of nineteenth-century authorities such as Sageret, Loisel, Naudin, Downing, Brinckle, Berckmans (all are referenced in the book) inspired me. Several plant scientists of my acquaintance lent their expertise, and I took advantage of a bonanza of recent research findings that informed my thinking on crop history and best cultural practices.
This book is more well rounded. It includes additional horticultural groups of melon, and I give watermelon—which is less genetically diverse and lacks horticultural groups—more of a fair shake. Much like the word “cantaloupe,” which is used colloquially and erroneously by Americans to describe muskmelon, the word “melon” is commonly used in the United States to refer to both melon and watermelon. These vining crops belong to two different species within the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family of plants. I’m neither a botanist nor a stickler about these things—case in point, the title of this book. Recent phylogenetic studies show that the cucurbits most likely originated in Asia in the Late Cretaceous period (over 70 million years ago). Various lineages found their way time and again to different continents by transoceanic long-distance dispersal. Picture gourds afloat! Watermelon’s more recent place of origin is in Africa; the wild progenitor of melon has been found growing in India, and its closest relative lives in Australia. Melon and watermelon are now among the world’s most important vegetable crops. The Melon has gone global too: The 125 varieties illustrated and described here comprise 85 melons and 40 watermelons from all over the map. Half are gems retained from the first book and half are new. Their stories are as diverse as the melons themselves.
And what lookers they are! Victor Schrager made sure of that. He’s the man who created the extraordinary images for this book. Our first photo shoot—on July 29, 2000—turned out to be the beginning of a collaboration spanning nineteen years. We produced four books together during that time and have two more in the works. On that long-ago Saturday in July, we were excited to begin, but the pouring rain thwarted our plan to do garden shots of melons growing on the vine. We holed up in the hot and steamy greenhouse and hatched another idea. Victor set up his wooden Deardorff view camera while I dashed off to the garden, clipped some melon and watermelon vines with their flowers, tendrils, and incipient fruit, and rushed them back inside lest they wilt or get beaten down by the rain. Two of the resulting images were used by our book designer, Stephen Doyle of Doyle Partners, for the endpapers in the first melon book, and two others appear here, as a beautiful reminder of that auspicious day.
It would take us nine years—nine growing seasons’ worth of photo shoots—before I felt it was a wrap. Not only do we have a more representative sample of the diversity that exists in cultivated melon and watermelon, but we have images for every chapter and lots of beauty shots for your viewing pleasure. And I was able to replace some sore thumbs from previous years. A case in point is the muskmelon known as Jenny Lind, originally photographed in 2000. She looked sad and wan to me. I obsessed, we reshot, and reshot again until Jenny looked her best in 2015 (we went digital on melon in 2012). Time also allowed us to play with potential cover shots. The last one, done on the Friday of Labor Day weekend 2018, was in response to Stephen Doyle’s idea: Create a group shot for the front cover with melons cut open to display their wares, and for the back cover, a shot of those same melons uncut. Not easy to achieve, considering that I’d already pulled up most of the melon plants. The ripped-up plant material had been composted and compacted with our new tractor the day before. I scrambled to salvage the Old-Time Tennessee, Banana, and Queen Anne’s Pocket melons that had been left behind in one of the gardens and retrieved Hale’s Best, Pollock Rocky Ford, some Mango melons, one Branco, four Ashkhabads, and a number of Allsweet and Moon and Stars watermelons from the walk-in cooler.
Twelve days later, on September 19, we photographed our last solo portrait: Grover Delaney watermelon. I cut six Grovers from the vine in the garden nearest the house, cradled the specimen melon in my lap, and slowly drove in a motorized mule a half-mile down the driveway to the barn studio. It was bittersweet to see Victor in the usual corner of the barn setting the stage for the still life atop a piece of plywood resting on two sturdy sawhorses. It could’ve been a scene from nineteen years earlier. Our wooden and marble props and backgrounds designed for melon photography are showing their age and fraying at the edges, but Victor remains amazingly fresh in his approach. The challenge for him has always been to provide elements of surprise while celebrating the obvious. He explains it’s like a wonderful pas de deux, a balance between aesthetics and practicality. And the opposite of tricks and illusions, because you can see his props and how he did it. It still boggles my mind.