The best summer days begin with the taste of cantaloupe


IT IS ONE of the first melons of the season. It smells good. And its sweet taste reminds me of barefoot breakfasts on dewy mornings. For these and a lot of other reasons, some logical, some emotional, I crave cantaloupe in the summer.

For starters, sliced cantaloupe is pleasant to wake up to. No commotion. No herbs or spices, just the bare fruit. I prefer to greet the dawn quietly, sweetly, with a minimum of fuss. I have found that days that start with coffee, cantaloupe slices, bare feet and cut-off shorts seem to come to much better ends than days that begin with breakfast meetings, polished shoes and suits.

By lunchtime, when the sun is high and sweat is pouring off my forehead, I want something salty with my 'loupe. Chunks of cantaloupe wrapped in slices of prosciutto or salami offer midday satisfaction. Then there is the traditional summer standby, a cantaloupe half stuffed with canned tuna, washed down with tall glasses of iced tea.

By evening I am thinking about dessert. Actually, I think about dessert all the time -- I just think about it longer in the evening. Rubbing cantaloupe slices with mint gives the fruit a slightly more complex flavor than the no-nonsense, no-mint-massage version I eat at breakfast.

I am also fond of several combinations of cantaloupe and ice cream. A half-cantaloupe stuffed with really good, slightly soft vanilla ice cream, or with double-dark chocolate ice cream, improves my mental health.

When I am feeling ambitious and when I have a cantaloupe that has reached the time in its life when it is overripe but not yet over the hill, I use the mushy melon to make cantaloupe ice cream in my noisy ice cream maker.

When I was a kid living in the Midwest, I earned a few bucks in the summer by selling cantaloupes door-to-door. On summer days in Baltimore I see men and boys selling fruits and vegetables door-to-door. These so-called a-rabs carry their goods in horse-drawn wagons and draw attention to themselves by walking down the street and singing out "Cannnnnnnntaloupe. Tomaaaaaaaaaaaaatoes," in rich, full-throated tones.

Back in St. Joseph, Mo., where I sold cantaloupes, the fruit was carried in a pickup truck, and nobody sang. My sales pitch went something like, "Hello, Mrs. Ellis, would you like to buy some home-grown cantaloupe today?"

If Mrs. Ellis was the least bit interested in buying, she ended up negotiating with Big John, my employer, who drove the fruit-laden pickup truck. Big John was 6 feet 10 inches tall. He was the largest human being I had ever seen. He could hold two cantaloupes in one hand. Years earlier he had led our high school basketball team to the state finals. But his basketball days were over. Big John would ease his truck down the street as we, his minions, would ring the doorbells.

Customers used a variety of methods to determine the ripeness of the cantaloupes we were selling. Some wanted to press their fingers on the blossom end of the melon. A slight press was permitted, but a deep poke was not.

Some folks screwed up their faces and carefully sniffed the ends of the melon, searching for that scent of "eau de 'loupe." Some shook the melons, listening for sounds of the seeds moving. There were folks who wanted the seeds to move, saying it was a sign that the melon was ripe. There were folks who didn't want to hear the seeds move. For them, seed-movement was a warning that the cantaloupe was past its prime.

For me, the most reliable method for determining when a cantaloupe is ripe has been to look at the background color of the skin. If the color is green, the melon needs a day or so before it is ripe. If it is golden, it is ready to slice and eat. If it is white, it is ready to be made into cantaloupe ice cream.

This method failed me recently when I was in Italy. Cantaloupe is thought to have originated in a place called Cantalupo, near Rome. The background color on the outside of the Italian melons I bought was green. But the inside of these melons was bright orange, and remarkably sweet. The Italian melons apparently ripen by different rules from American melons.

I can't remember Big John's rules for ripeness, but I do recall his method of closing a cantaloupe sale. If, at the end of the day, he had a customer who wasn't sure she wanted to buy two cantaloupes for $1, Big John would hem and haw and then reach, with his amazingly long arms, into the back of the truck. He would pull out one more, sometimes two more cantaloupes, and present them to the much shorter and no-longer reluctant customer.

The customer felt happy. Extra cantaloupes had descended upon her, at no extra cost. Big John was satisfied; he had made a sale. My fellow door-ringers and I were also pleased. These end-of-the-day bargains emptied the truck bed of cantaloupes. That meant that during the hurried ride home we didn't have to share the back of the truck with a bunch of bouncing, almost-rotten cantaloupes.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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