I finally took one of my ‘Winter King and Queen’ watermelons out of its trash can full of brine and sliced it open. What a revelation! This pickled watermelon wasn’t slimy and tomato-like, like the brined watermelon I had in New York so many years ago. It wasn’t a translucent red like the ‘Golden Midget’ melons I brined in 2010. The flesh still looked more or less as it would have before brining, and it was mostly still crisp. It was lightly sweet, sour, and salty all at once. It was, in sum, delicious, and now I understand why many old-timey Germans from Russia prefer the ‘Winter King and Queen’ over other watermelons for brining.
Robert immediately found uses for the brined melon. He cut it into cubes and combined it in a salad with sliced celery and scallions and unrefined sunflower oil. This salad was so good that I had to duplicate it the following evening. He made a cocktail of homemade slivovitz (plum brandy) with cubed brined watermelon. He ate the flesh by spoonfuls right down to the green outer rind. And we both drank the refreshing brine that the cut melon released while sitting in the fridge.
We will eat the other melons soon, while they’re still crisp. And when they are gone we will miss them. Thank goodness we’re only two months away from watermelon-planting time.
“I should have invented that!” my husband said to himself when he first saw The Briner. People who are handy apparently say this to themselves often, but in this case it’s true: He should have invented that!
He gave me The Briner and The Briner Jr. for Christmas. They are food-grade buckets, 22-quart and 8-quart, respectively, made in the USA. Each comes with a lid and a flat plate that fits inside and locks into place between indentations that run in vertical rows down opposite sides of the bucket. I don’t know how much Robert paid for the set, but on the manufacturer’s website it costs $60. You can get these two buckets with a third, the 3.5-quart Briner Mini, for just $15 more.
The strange thing is that the manufacturer hasn’t figured out that these buckets are good for fermenting vegetables. One photo on the website shows corn on the cob, presumably getting a brief soak in the bucket before grilling. But there are no other photos of vegetables and no mention of vegetables or fermentation. The website is all about brining meat.
As I mentioned in my last post, I began brining some watermelons in a food-grade plastic trash can in October. Unfortunately, I have no plate big enough to fit inside the trash can. If I had an old-growth tree to cut up, I could create something appropriate. Instead I filled an assortment of food-grade containers with water and used them in place of both a plate and weights. This setup is not working very well.
The other day I started brining a single, 2 ½-pound whole cabbage in The Briner Jr. The process was shockingly easy: Insert cabbage, pour over brine, add a few aromatics, insert plate, turn it to lock it in place, snap on lid. The lid may need burping from time to time, though I could avoid that little task by leaving the lid loose. But otherwise I have nothing to do but wait. Once fermentation is underway I may carry the bucket from the kitchen downstairs to the cellar, but that will be easy: The bucket weights little more than its ingredients.
I can’t find the inventor’s name on the website, but I thank him for his ingenuity. I hope he profits well from his invention.
Remember the long piece I wrote last year on the ‘Winter King and Queen’ watermelon? The winter-watermelon fun continues.
Last spring I gave my friend Betty several starts of ‘Winter King and Queen,’ and she grew out all of them. In early September, I brought home from Betty’s farm about eight round, nearly white melons. The two or three that Robert and I ate fresh over the next few weeks were sweet, crisp, aromatic, and delicious. They tasted even better than the single ‘Winter King and Queen’ we ate last year, since this year we found no coarse, pale flesh surrounding the seeds.
After about a month I set three of the melons to brining in a food-grade trash can in the basement (I’m sorry to call the container a trash can, but there seems to exist no other term for it except garbage can, which somehow strikes me as worse). I kept two remaining melons on a shelf in the basement, which, for a basement, is rather warm, because it houses a furnace and a water heater. In mid-December, one of the melons began to liquify, and I put it in the compost pile. The other melon, though, stayed solid until December 27. On that day, although I was dressed in three layers of wool and snow covered the garden, I decided it was time for a taste.
I shivered at the prospect. Watermelon is cooling even when it hasn’t just come out of the fridge. After eating one slice, however, I immediately cut myself another. This ‘Winter King and Queen,’ like the ones we’d eaten in September, was sweet, crisp, and aromatic. The flesh had softened around the seeds in some parts—you can see the darker areas in the picture–but I just scraped out these bits and kept eating.
So, it’s true—the ‘Winter King and Queen’ watermelon really can keep well until Christmas. I might have avoided the softening in one melon and the rotting of the other if I had kept them in a cooler place. (We have another garbage can—truly a garbage can, the old galvanized metal kind—sunk in the ground outside the back door. Maybe I have finally found a use for it.) For all the people who can bring themselves to eat watermelon in December, wouldn’t it be nice to revive the concept of the winter watermelon? Wouldn’t it be nice if farmers sold some of these melons as well as the bland, seedless types that soften so unappetizingly within a week?
Many Germans from Russia consider the ‘Winter King and Queen’ doubly virtuous: They say it is exceptionally good for brining as well as long-keeping. I will see if I agree in a few more weeks, when I lift the first fermented melon out of its brine in the plastic trash can in the basement.
The big, warty salmon-pink pumpkin surprised me when it appeared in my community garden plot this year. I couldn’t remember planting the seed. I must have, though, because rolling around my brain was the variety name—Galeux d’Eysines, or Scabby from Eysines. I found the fruit stunningly beautiful, and I was happy it was growing where so many people could admire it.
This Cucurbita maxima variety was developed in Eysines, a farming community near Bordeaux, in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. It apparently wasn’t introduced to the United States until 1996, when Amy Goldman found it at a potiron fair in Tranzault, a tiny town in the center of France (Amy loves squashes so much that she wrote a book about them and sculpts them besides).
Some Americans are now calling Galeux d’Eysines the peanut pumpkin, not only because peanut pumpkin is easier to pronounce but because the warts on this squash are, in their size, color, and ridges, reminiscent of dried peanut shells.
Although Galeux d’Eysines may be the world’s wartiest squash, many squashes are warty. I can’t tell you why. Gardeners like to say that the warts emerge from an excessive buildup of sugar in the flesh. But I can find no scientific verification of this notion, and, in fact, when I tasted the insides of a Galeux d’Eysines wart I didn’t taste any sweetness at all.
Now I remember where I got the seed I planted last spring. Three years ago I bought a Galeux d’Eysines squash at a market. Because seed catalogs raved about the flavor—“one of the tastiest squashes I have tried” (Baker Creek), “silky smooth, fiber-free” (Everwilde Farms)—I was disappointed to find mine watery and insipid. I wondered if perhaps I’d cut into it too early or too late, since some squashes improve with keeping and others deteriorate quickly. I saved a few seeds so I could sample another fruit or two later.
This year, my vine produced two fruits—the usual yield, according to the catalogs. The bigger fruit, pictured here, weighed more than 20 pounds. Its flesh was a beautiful bright orange, its seed cavity small, and its seeds rather few (and too big and tough to eat). I cut the squash in half, roasted one half, and gave the other half to a neighbor.
Again, I was disappointed: The flesh was watery, only mildly sweet, and somewhat stringy. It became silky-smooth only after I put it through the food mill.
Still, with the milled flesh I made a delicious curried squash soup with coconut milk. My neighbor was happy with her similar-looking soup. If you like puréed soup, this may be the squash for you.
But its use is limited. To make it into pie you have to drain off some of the water. If you want to stir-fry it, well, forget it.
The greatest virtue of the Galeux d’Eysines, I concluded, is its appearance. My bigger fruit made a lovely porch ornament all through October and November. If I had plenty of garden space, I would grow Galeux d’Eysines every year, just for the pleasure of looking at it. But for me it could never replace denser, sweeter squash varieties like butternut, red kuri, and Sweet Meat. With plenty of those fruits, come winter, I wouldn’t feel guilty about throwing Galeux d’Eysines to the pigs—if I had pigs. Thank goodness that at least I have neighbors.
Every year the garlic harvest seems to come a little earlier than the last. This year I harvested on June 14, despite on-and-off rain. I couldn’t wait any longer; on some heads the cloves were already pushing outward, which will lead to early sprouting, and rust spots were beginning to appear on some leaves. The rain was likely to continue for at least another day. Here in western Oregon June is normally a nearly dry month, with an average of only an inch and a half of rain. But what’s normal anymore? Last year I harvested during a downpour.
I worked as fast as I could, using only my hands to lift the heads—the soil is that light. Light soil makes for clean garlic, provided that the soil is dry, as it should be by harvest time. But this time my garlic heads were covered in mud. I washed them in a bucket so I could pour the dirt soup back into the bed, and then I gave the heads a final rinse with a garden hose. You have to clean the base of each head thoroughly if you plan to keep the pretty rootlets but don’t want to contaminate your kitchen workspace with soil (which could lead to a risk of botulism, depending on how you store the food you’re preparing). Thankfully, the rain stopped long enough for the clean garlic to dry in the sun for an hour or two before I had to hurry to carry it indoors.
Now the garlic is drying further on the pool table in the basement. This isn’t the ideal place to dry garlic; last year I lost some of the heads to rot. But I’ll keep the windows open and turn the garlic twice a day, and in a few weeks I’ll make some beautiful braids. I think we’re set for garlic for the coming year.
Finishing the garlic harvest always seems like cause for celebration. The best way to celebrate is with an aioli platter—bread and boiled eggs, potatoes, and other vegetables with a bowl of aioli (a Provençal word; it’s alioli in Spain), mayonnaise’s simple—and, I think—superior, garlicky ancestor.
Most Americans make aioli or mayonnaise with flavorless vegetable oil, but I like to use extra-virgin olive oil or even roasted hazelnut oil. The latter is unusual but irresistible. I use a whole egg instead of the traditional yolk so that I can make the aioli quickly with a hand blender. Alternatively, you could use two yolks. If you have no hand blender, use just one yolk and add the oil drop by drop, beating constantly with a whisk.
If you’re worried about the risk of salmonella from eating raw eggs, use a pasteurized egg.
Vary the number of garlic cloves depending on their size and pungency. Fresh-dug garlic is sometimes really hot!
1 whole egg 1 to 3 peeled garlic cloves, chopped ¼ to ½ teaspoon fine salt, to taste 2/3 to ¾ cup roasted hazelnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
Put the egg, garlic, and salt into a tall and narrow container. Begin blending on high with a hand blender. Pour in the oil gradually, and keep blending until the mixture is uniform and quite thick. Chill the aioli until you’re ready to eat.
Every year red orach comes up here and there in my garden, and usually it goes right to seed, sending up a stalk at least three feet tall that bears opposite pairs of two- to three-inch heart-shaped leaves. I could pinch back the top of each plant to encourage it to bush out, but I haven’t bothered. The small leaves are never bitter or tough, and they are perfect for adding whole to green salads.
Orach—the word almost rhymes with borage–is Atriplex hortensis, an ancient Eurasian herb in the amaranth family that comes in green, red, and “white,” or bright yellow-green. The plant is related to spinach and chard and tastes like both, only much milder, with barely a touch of sourness. Given plenty of water, the plant can grow as tall as six feet. I’ve never managed to grow orach neatly in rows, but I always let at least one plant self-sow. The seeds, in their flat, papery husks, apparently spread themselves among the garden beds, and just enough of them manage to sprout. I welcome the spot of red color—the only color I’ve grown—wherever it appears, especially when the wind comes up and exposes the leaves’ fuchsia undersides.
Something different about the weather this year has slowed the orach’s race to seed production, and now I appreciate the plant more than ever. It has formed lettuce-like heads with big leaves, about five inches across. Yesterday, as I considered what to make for dinner, I knew these big leaves were probably the only ones I would get; the plants were already beginning to bolt. So, dinner had to include orach salad rolls.
I picked eight big orach leaves, trimmed out the lower part of the midribs, and rolled each leaf around bean-thread noodles, pickled threads of carrot, mint leaves, and salad shrimp. This was much easier than making salad rolls with rice-paper wrappers; the leaves proved to be at once sturdy and flexible. For accompaniment, I made a sweet peanut-chile sauce.
I didn’t check my watch, but I’ll bet that Robert and I ate the whole stack of salad rolls in less than three minutes.
RED ORACH SALAD ROLLS Serves 4 normal people
Quick Carrot Pickle 2 tablespoons rice vinegar 1½ teaspoon sugar ¼ teaspoon fine salt 1 medium-large carrot
Sweet Peanut-Chile Sauce 1 tablespoon peanut butter 3 tablespoons Thai sweet chile sauce About 1 tablespoon rice vinegar About ¼ teaspoon fine salt
Two bunches bean-thread noodles 8 large orach leaves Handful fresh mint leaves (I used a Vietnamese variety, but spearmint is good) ½ cup (cooked and peeled) salad shrimp
Carrot Pickle: In a wide bowl, stir together the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Cut the carrot into thin sticks. You can do this by slicing it diagonally and then cutting the slices thin lengthwise, but the tool shown here makes the job quicker. Toss the carrot in the seasoned vinegar. The sticks will quickly lose their stiffness.
Sweet Peanut-Chile Sauce: Put the peanut butter into a small serving bowl. With a fork, mix in the Thai sweet chile sauce. Loosen the sauce with rice vinegar, and season the sauce with salt.
In a large saucepan, heat water to a boil. Cook the bean-thread noodles briefly, until they are tender, separating them with chopsticks or another tool as they begin to soften. Drain the noodles, and rinse them well with cold water.
Cut out about 1 inch of the lower, thicker midrib from each orach leaf. Lay the leaves, one at a time, upside-down on your work surface. Top each leaf with a portion of the noodles, carrot, mint, and shrimp, and roll the leaf from the base to the tip. Place the roll seam-side down on a plate. Make the rest of the rolls the same way.
For garnish, borage blossoms provide an interesting color contrast.
Once again, about a week ago, I dug into the roots of my Jerusalem artichokes, isolated in a corner of the yard where they get no water that doesn’t fall from the sky, and confined by the landscape fabric I spread to keep the Bermuda grass from invading from two neighbors’ yards.
Once again I found a bounty. I loaded the roots into a galvanized washtub and hosed them clean. And then I wondered how Robert and I would eat them all—and how we could do it while avoiding “a filthy loathsome stinking wind,” as John Goodyer described the roots’ aftereffects in 1621.1
The same day I roasted some of the roots—in the way you would usually roast vegetables, but slower, at 350 degrees F for two hours. The long cooking, I figured, might make the inulin-rich roots more digestible. It did not—but what a delicious dish! The chunks turned out crunchy on the outside and soft and candy-sweet on the inside. Robert thought they would make an excellent side for roast beef.2
Most of the roots were still sitting in colanders on the kitchen counter when my digestion returned to normal.3 Again they tempted me. I remembered how tasty baked artichoke chips were, the last time I made them. No doubt artichoke chips would be even tastier fried. They would be less trouble to cook that way, and I could quickly use up a large quantity of roots. In the end I was glad I’d cooked a lot, because the chips shrank substantially; they lost two-thirds of their weight. They turned out curled and brown, a sweet, salty, crisp, greasy delight. They still have gassy powers, but we haven’t suffered much as long as we’ve restricted ourselves to a handful a day. (This takes discipline. The chips are addictive!)
Advocates of vinegar pickling Jerusalem artichokes insist that they won’t cause gas if they’re first boiled and then soaked in vinegar. I suspect the vinegar works simply by slowing consumption. Boiling, however, actually reduces the inulin in the roots; Harold McGee, in The Curious Cook(1990), also advises this method. In fact, inulin is highly soluble in water. It must be the inulin that makes the bubbles appear strangely large when you boil Jerusalem artichokes; the stuff apparently acts as a surfactant. McGee boiled his Jerusalem artichokes for fifteen minutes and figured he had drawn out 40 to 50 percent of the “indigestibles”—the powdery residue left in the pan after he had boiled off the water.
Unfortunately, I don’t like the taste of boiled Jerusalem artichokes. The roots are much tastier raw, roasted, or fried. Judiciously combined with other vegetables, though, Jerusalem artichokes can add appeal. So I boiled some of the roots to mix with mashed potatoes. I routinely boil potatoes as my mother and grandmother did, with only a little water, so the pan ends up dry when the potatoes are ready and no nutrients are lost in the water. To reduce the inulin in the Jerusalem artichokes, though, I gave them a different treatment: I put them into a separate pan, covered them with water, boiled them for about fifteen minutes, and then discarded all the water. The artichokes don’t soften as potatoes do, but if you peel them before or after boiling them (peeling them first is more trouble but may help them shed more inulin) you can force them through a ricer like the one shown here.3 Without drawing too much attention to themselves, the Jerusalem artichokes nicely sweetened the starchy, dry Makah Ozette potatoes. 4 (The Jerusalem artichoke announced its presence more aggressively, but tolerably, some hours later.)
I boiled more Jerusalem artichokes to make a purée to store in the freezer. This time I used a blender, and blended the roots with fresh water instead of the water from the pan. I hope the purée will combine well in a potage with leeks, celery, and other vegetables as well as potatoes.
Here are my recipes for the roasted roots and fried chips. I hope you enjoy them—in moderation, of course!
Fried Jerusalem Artichoke Chips
6 cups cold water 3 tablespoons fine salt 3 pounds Jerusalem artichokes (not peeled)
Put the water into a bowl, and stir in the salt. Slice the Jerusalem artichokes 2 millimeters thick (use a mandoline, if you have one). Drop the slices into the brine as you work. Let the slices soak in the brine for about 4 hours.
Drain the Jerusalem artichoke slices in a colander, and then fry them in batches in oil heated to 350 degrees F. Move them around in the oil every now and then so they cook evenly. When they are shrunken, curled, and lightly browned, they are ready. This should take about 4 minutes. Drain them on paper towels, paper bags, or newspaper.
Roasted Jerusalem Artichokes
1½ pounds Jerusalem artichokes, cut into chunks (not peeled) 1 large sprig fresh rosemary (optional) 2 tablespoons olive oil ½ teaspoon kosher salt A few grindings black pepper
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Put the Jerusalem artichokes into a baking dish with the rosemary, if you’re using it. Pour over the olive oil, and toss. Sprinkle over the salt and pepper. Bake the artichokes for about 2 hours, until they are brown on the outside and tender on the inside.
1. John Gerard’s Herball. Actually, Goodyer exaggerated. The “wind” is not filthy or stinking, just noisy and somewhat painful.
2. Harold McGee, in The Curious Cook, advises steaming Jerusalem artichokes in an oven at 200 degrees F for 24 hours to break down the inulin into fructose. To me that would seem an extravagant use of fuel, and anyhow his artichokes turned out black.
3. This is not the best way to store Jerusalem artichokes. They should at least be refrigerated; it’s best, in fact, to store them at just above freezing. They also need high humidity during storage. Some people pack them in moist sand or soil in a box or bucket set in a cool place. Alternatively, you can simply leave them in the ground, and dig them out only as you need them, until approximately the end of March.
4. This ricer seems made for Makah Ozette potatoes. Because of their many, deep-set eyes, peeling Ozettes before cooking them wastes too much potato flesh. Peeling them after cooking is too difficult, and burned fingers can ruin your mood. Not peeling the potatoes at all makes for an ugly, uneven mash. But with a ricer you end up with a perfectly smooth mash. The clean skins are left behind, flattened against the screen of the ricer.
Today I’m singing a dirge for the Home Orchard Society, yet another victim of the coronavirus—although, like so many volunteer-run nonprofits, this one was barely staying on its feet when the virus delivered its final blow.
Until recently, HOS appeared to be in glowing good health. Established in 1975 to serve the entire Pacific Northwest, the organization was an invaluable resource for Oregon and Washington fruit growers. In the fall the old hall at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds would fill with crowds of people sampling hundreds of varieties of apples and pears, eating them as fast as HOS volunteers could cut up the fruit. You could choose your favorite cultivars and order grafted trees to pick up in spring, at the Fruit Propagation Fair. Or you could come to the spring fair and join the crowds at the tables again, this time grabbing not for fruit but for free scionwood cuttings. An HOS volunteer would graft each of your scions onto rootstock as you watched, or you could take home the scions to graft yourself. At other tables you could pick up “fruit sox” to protect your apples organically, mason bee supplies to improve pollination, and books about fruit growing to read when the rain kept you indoors. The organization published its own quarterly journal, The Pome News, which was mailed to every member. HOS also maintained a nearly two-acre demonstration orchard at Clackamas Community College and held workshops and cider pressings there. If you lived close by you could join the arboretum’s CSA and pick up a boxload of fruit every week—apples, pears, grapes, figs, persimmons, kiwis, plums, pawpaws, and quinces.
All this was a tremendous amount of work for the board and other lead volunteers, especially when the membership grew to more than seven hundred. The old-timers who had been growing, pruning, and grafting fruit trees all their lives, who knew how to foil the Northwest’s formidable confederacy of microbial and insect pests, were dying off, and younger members lacked time, experience, or both. The membership director resigned, and no one else wanted the job. Joanie Cooper, the organization’s longtime president, was now running the Temperate Orchard Conservancy, a living collection of five thousand apple varieties, and couldn’t take on more responsibilities. So when Covid-19 forced the cancellation of first the spring Fruit Propagation Fair and then the fall All About Fruit Show, as well as all the summer workshops at the arboretum, things fell apart. A few days ago the board sent members a short note asking for their assent in terminating the association.
Those who are dissatisfied with the selection at the local garden center or who, like me, need scions for trees whose grafts have failed, must now figure out where to turn. The Agrarian Sharing Network, a Eugene-area organization with a similar but more limited mission, managed, last spring, to provide grafted fruit trees in dozens of unusual varieties to gardeners in Sweet Home as well as Eugene; anyone could order trees online and pick them up at curbside. This was far from the vision of the ASG organizers, who for the preceding few years had held a series of small, neighborhood propagation fairs around the area. When the virus lets us resume holding social gatherings, perhaps the ASN can return to its vision, and perhaps that vision will prove sustainable. For now, I’m finding out what fruit varieties my neighbors are growing, because I just might want to ask them for some scions.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, home fruit culture will be harder without the Home Orchard Society. We’ll need to find new ways to cooperate if we want to continue preserving heirloom fruit varieties and furthering the art and science of growing good fruit at home.
Because yesterday afternoon was warm and sunny, Robert carved the jack o’lanterns on the deck while I cut back the caneberries. “Do you want to use any of this flesh?” he yelled. He likes to scrape the walls of the pumpkins so thin that the candlelight glows through them.
It was sweet, delicious. I’d suspected would be, when I bought it at the produce market up the highway. This pumpkin was a deeper orange than the others, and heavier for its size. The cashier told me it weighed more than the much larger pumpkin I’d brought from the bin a minute earlier. This one might be tastier, too, I told her.
“You eat Halloween pumpkins?”
Usually, I explained, I put them into the compost or bury them in a raised bed. But if they are sweet and dense and not stringy, certainly I eat them. I didn’t mention the seeds, which we would roast and eat regardless, or the high price I’d be paying for compost-to-be if we didn’t eat any part of the pumpkins.
The trick-or-treating started out slow. Families in costume walked slowly by the house, gazing at the lit jack o’lanterns but not coming up the walk. During a pandemic, it’s hard to know if you’re being too presumptuous in knocking on a stranger’s door. So I made a sign—“Trick-or-Treaters Welcome”—and stuck it on a brick porch post. And the kids started coming. Each time they did, I pulled on my plague mask, a black cotton bird’s beak stuffed with tissue paper (herbs would make me sneeze), to which I’d affixed goggles cut from black felt. While Robert pulled open the door, I extended the broomstick to which he had hung a basket, now filled with candy.
Between trick-or-treating groups, we munched roasted pumpkin seeds and I checked the big pot full of pumpkin flesh on the stove. I let the cooking finish with the lid off, so excess water would steam away.
This morning I pressed the cooked pumpkin through the food mill, but that turned out to be an unnecessary step: The flesh was string-free. But now it was a fine purée, ready for a pie—except that it was still pretty watery. I could freeze it as it was and use it for soup, but I had pie on my mind. So I dumped the purée into a fine strainer, and waited a few minutes before packing the purée into freezer containers. I was about to pour the pumpkin water into the compost, but then I tasted it. It wasn’t just water. It was orange and sweet and tasty. It went into the fridge to await its future in a soup or stew.
Robert brought in the little jack o’lantern and took over at the butcher block. He is cutting away the peel, slicing the flesh into chunks, and filling the big pot again. We will have plenty of pumpkin for pie—not butternut or kabocha but genuine jack o’lantern pumpkin, pumpkin that did its duty on an old-fashioned Halloween night.
My friend Betty surprised me when she arrived on my porch holding what appeared to be a large white, gently ribbed pumpkin. “It’s your watermelon!” she told me, smiling broadly. And the thin stem, twisted like a pig’s tail, proved that it was indeed a watermelon.
I hadn’t seen Betty since before the coronavirus outbreak. But she had agreed that I might leave my start of ‘Winter King and Queen’ watermelon on her doorstep and that she would plant it in her garden. I’d gotten the seed from Andrew Still, who knew that I was interested in fermented whole watermelons and that ‘Winter King and Queen’ was a variety favored for the purpose by Germans from Russia.
In case you’ve never heard of Germans from Russia (GFR), they are probably the U.S. ethnic group most devoted to preserving their history, even though they have long and thoroughly blended into the general white population. Their ancestors left Germany for Russia in the late eighteenth century, after Catherine the Great invited foreigners to immigrate without having to give up their language or religious traditions, pay taxes, or serve in the military. A century later, the ethnic Germans lost their special privileges, and whole villages picked themselves up and moved to rural parts of North and South America.
Most GFRs have either stopped preparing their old family recipes or transformed them. In the Midwest, for example, many GFRs pickle cut watermelon flesh in a vinegar solution. But some, such as the Hutterites of South Dakota, still brine whole melons. And the variety they most like to brine is ‘Winter King and Queen.’
I tried two years in a row to grow ‘Winter King and Queen’ in my little city garden, but it produced no fruit. When nurseries say a plant requires full sun, they generally mean it needs six hours of sun per day. But some plants truly need all-day sun, which is hard to get in a little garden surrounded by buildings and trees. I suspected that ‘Winter King and Queen’ was greedy for sunlight. It wanted to grow in an open field.
So this year I started a few seeds in a pot in the greenhouse and left the pot for Betty, who has a small farm a few miles from town. Betty set out the start as promised, and eventually the plant produced several good-sized melons. Mine weighed more than seventeen pounds.
My main GFR contact, Gwen Schock Cowherd, maintains that GFRs never eat ‘Winter King and Queen’ fresh—they grow other melons for fresh eating—but only brine it or pickle it in vinegar. Some old seed catalogs say that the melon is delicious fresh but should be stored for a while to mellow. I had no intention of brining such a big melon, and I lacked the patience to wait for weeks before eating it. So after only a few days I cut it open. And the very cutting produced another surprise: The skin was quite hard. It wasn’t rubbery-tough, like the skin of a citron melon;it was hard like the skin of a pumpkin.
Most of the Germans in Russia lived along the Volga River, around Sarotov, where watermelons thrive. Because transportation was poor, the melons served largely for the community’s own subsistence. They were boiled down for molasses, they were brined to eat in late winter and spring, and they were stored until Christmas, or longer. At least some local watermelons were bred for these purposes. A hard skin would have made a melon keep longer and perhaps stay firmer when brined. But were these melons somehow unpleasant when fresh?
My watermelon, once cut, showed a rather thin white rind (this cultivar certainly wasn’t intended for making sweet watermelon-rind pickles!) The fruit released a fragrance that my husband compared to cucumbers and flowers. The flesh was the usual pinkish red with the plentiful black seeds of an old-fashioned watermelon.
The sliced melon tasted as good as it looked. The flesh was rather firm and not the sweetest, but it was definitely sweeter than that of any seedless watermelon, the only kind I can find in stores these days. My husband and I were both a bit put off by the coarse, whitish flesh that surrounded the seeds in a few places, but we still judged ‘Winter King and Queen’ to be a very good eating melon.
I set out to learn more about the variety. To my surprise, the venerable food historian William Woys Weaverdescribed ‘King and Queen’ as a ten-pound melon with “white-green” skin striped with dark green. That didn’t sound like my melon. But Amy Goldman, author of Melons for the Passionate Grower, described an unstriped, greenish white, twelve-pound round ‘Wintermelon’ or ‘King and Queen Winter Melon’; this one sounded more like mine. I checked the catalogs of the few companies that sell ‘Winter King and Queen’ seed today. Some showed photos of a uniformly greenish white melon; others showed a pale melon with green stripes. Who was right and who was wrong here? Were the melons different strains of the same cultivar? The many alternative names—“Winter Melon,” “Winter Watermelon,” “Winter Queen,” “Winter King,” and more—only added to my confusion.
I attempted to trace the melon’s history. The USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1394, from 1934, got me off to a start, in a discussion of “a small round melon grown in Colorado and California and sold under the names Winter Queen, Winter King, Alaska, Klondike, and others. Varieties of this type were introduced from the Volga River section of Russian probably by Russians who settled in the Rocky Ford district of Colorado. . . . The Russian growers in Colorado follow the practice of placing these melons in salt brine and keeping them in a cold place until midwinter for their own use.”
The little town of Rocky Ford, about sixty miles east of Pueblo, Colorado, was established in 1870 by George Washington Swink, who led the construction of a communal irrigation system and soon began planting cantaloupes and watermelons. By the late 1800s the town was calling itself the Melon Capital of the World. Even today the local melon business thrives, and the Watermelon Day festival that Swink founded in 1878 is still an annual tradition.
Did the GFRs have something to do with the Rocky Ford melon business? Plenty of them settled in Colorado, mostly in the northern counties of Larimer and Weld, where they worked in the sugar-beet fields. But Rocky Ford also had its GFR contingent; thirty-nine GFR families arrived there in 1910 to work for the American Crystal Sugar Company—again, in sugar-beet fields. Whether the GFRs grew watermelons in their own fields I don’t know, but their tastes may have influenced the local watermelon trade. The Ebbert Seed Company of Rocky Ford began selling ‘Winter Watermelon’ seed in 1912 and ‘King and Queen’ in 1915.
The two varieties seem to have gotten confused early on. In 1911, the Grand Junction Seed Company advertised ‘King and Queen’ as having an an “ivory shell.” In 1912 Ebbert described ‘Winter Watermelon’ similarly:
Very prolific bearer. Flesh red of extreme firmness, almost hard as a citron—very brittle and deliciously sweet. Color very light green, almost white. Placed in a cool place will keep long into the winter and still retain its delicious sweetness and flavor.
In 1920, Ebbert left ‘Winter Watermelon’ out of the catalog and applied its former ‘Winter Watermelon’ description to ‘King and Queen.’ Perhaps this was an error?
In 1929 ‘King and Queen’ was still in Ebbert’s catalog, but this time with a different description:
Very light in color with a slightly dark stripe, size about 10 inches in diameter, average about 20 pounds, seed small, shiny black. The flavor, sweet and surprisingly delicious, is entirely distinct from a watermelon. . . . It should not be eaten right off the vine but should be allowed time to become mellow; can be kept in perfect condition until holiday time.
Presumably, Ebbert replaced ‘Winter Watermelon’ in its catalog with ‘King and Queen.’ But it isn’t clear whether ‘King and Queen’ arrived uniformly pale at Rocky Ford, and acquired its stripes through crossing or selection, or whether it had always been striped. Other seed companies, meanwhile, continued to sell a whitish-skinned, unstriped melon called ‘Winter Watermelon.’ The typical description of ‘King and Queen’ as the best winter watermelon–or simply the winter watermelon—may have contributed to the confusion of two different cultivars.
The name ‘King and Queen’ apparently originated with John F. Brown, who farmed winter melons in Elgin, Utah, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Elgin is now a ghost town, but the little settlement on the Green River was then the home of Brown’s ‘Eden’ cantaloupe, which seldom matured on the vine but months later would grow sweet and delicious. In 1898, Brown secured seeds of more winter melon varieties from Niels Hansen, a plant explorer and breeder employed by the USDA in South Dakota. Hansen had recently journeyed through various regions of Russia in search of fruits that might thrive on the northern U.S. plains. He sent Brown and other farmers an assortment of Russian seeds. Some of them came with names. But none was called ‘King and Queen.’
Brown, then, must have named the melon himself. After growing it for four or five seasons, he described it this way:
The King and Queen watermelon is yet king and queen of the melon world; my offer of $100 for a pound of seed that will grow as handsome, as lucious [sic] and as valuable a melon has never been taken up. Its weight is about 25 pounds. The Salt Lake hotels and restaurants have been using this melon for about three years. They are also shipped to all parts of the East, and the demand has always exceeded the supply. Its keeping qualities are wonderful, and we have them on hand up to Christmas and they are as fine as when gathered from the vines on September first.
To my frustration, Brown failed to describe the melon’s shape, flesh color, or skin color or pattern. He probably would have mentioned the color if it was nearly white, but not necessarily; melons varied more in those days than they do now. Hansen had brought back seeds of watermelons with white, yellow, and green flesh; spots instead of stripes; bright yellow skin; and, in one case, “skin adorned with pretty designs.”
But only one of Hansen’s cultivars came close to matching William Woys Weaver’s description of ‘King and Queen.’ Originally from Chimkent, Turkestan, this melon was “round, quite large, light green with dark stripes, flesh red; late and of good keeping quality.” Although the fruit didn’t ripen in the South Dakota trials, the plant may have produced well in Elgin, Utah. If it did, Brown would have had to give it a name, because Hansen had not. And what would he call “the king and queen of the melon world” but ‘King and Queen’?
In the fall of 1889 Brown shipped to the USDA “187 pounds of seeds and a carload of melons from a planting of 3 ½ pounds of seeds given me.” The seeds were distributed to melon-growing regions around the country, and Brown began talking up the ‘King and Queen.’
I like to imagine GFRs on their long journeys by ship, rail, and wagon with seeds sown into the hems of their skirts or tucked into corners of their valises. And maybe the white-skinned ‘Winter Watermelon’ did come to America in such a way. Hansen, after all, tested seeds of six watermelon varieties that he gathered from a Mennonite GFR community in Windom, Minnesota, and another “American” watermelon variety that went by the name ‘Volga.’ Those seeds, too, may have been distributed around the country. And seeds of other winter varieties may have spread from GFR communities anywhere from the Pacific Coast to New York.
If I can get Betty to grow Andrew Still’s ‘Winter King and Queen’ again, and to give me two fruits instead on one, I will try keeping one until Christmas and brining the other. And I will also try to order seeds of a striped ‘King and Queen.’ I am eager to learn if the two are strains of the same cultivar or if the differences are more than skin-deep.