Honey from a Watermelon

I didn’t invent watermelon molasses, Sara Bir informed me. At least I wasn’t the first to invent it.

I’d cooked twenty pounds of watermelon into a cup of syrup because I and the rest of the family were tired of eating watermelon and the melon was overripe anyway. Besides, I’d had grape molasses (arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, pekmez) on my mind. I’d been thinking about life before cheap cane sugar, especially in Europe. Honey was a cherished sweetener then, but it wasn’t always available, at least not at a price that many people could afford. Before the word molasses and its cognates referred to cane syrup, they were applied to honey-like fruit or vegetable syrups. Molasses derives from the Latin word for “must”—grape juice—and the word for “must” comes from the Latin word for “honey.” The oldest reference to molasses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1582, defines it as “a certeine kinde of Sugar made of Palmes or Date trees”; the second, from 1588, calls it “Sirrope of sugar, beanes [etc.].” When you had more fruit—even beans!—than you could eat, you might preserve its essence by boiling down the juice.

Fruit molasses hasn’t gone entirely out of style. Grape molasses, fig molasses, and pomegranate molasses are still imported to the United States from the Mediterranean region and sold at high prices in specialty stores. These products provide a mellow sweetening in sauces, dressings, and desserts, and grape molasses is the sweetener in cheaper kinds of balsamic vinegar.

Why not make molasses from watermelon? I’d decided to try it. The result, as I described in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, was remarkably like grape molasses. With so much boiling, fruit juice darkens and loses its volatile flavors. In the finished syrup, you taste mostly sweetness and minerals.

When Sara came upon my recipe for watermelon molasses, she’d already made a version herself—an experience she describes in entertaining detail in Metroactive. Sara had come upon a little cookbook, Our Favorite Recipes, compiled by the Friendly Aid Society of Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church of Fresno, California, and published in 1979. In the book were some distinctly American dishes, such as Jello salads, but there were also foods with exotic-sounding names, like grebbles and berrocks. What interested Sara most were the three coffeecake recipes calling for watermelon molasses, and the recipe for watermelon molasses itself.

Sara wrote me to ask what I knew about watermelon molasses. I didn’t know much; I certainly didn’t know it was a popular ingredient in the kitchens of Fresno Lutherans. I wondered where these people had come from. I pondered the word berrocks, which didn’t sound as if it had ever been German.

On the Web, I found numerous recipes for bierocks—yeast buns stuffed with ground beef and cabbage—and at least one was attributed to the Volga Germans. These were people from southwest Germany, mostly, who at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1763 settled along the Volga River in Russia, where they were allowed to maintain their language, culture, and various religious traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, and Mennonite; Jews weren’t welcome). Although the Volga Germans kept mainly to themselves, they must have learned a few things from the locals. Their bierocks or berrocks—the accent is on the second syllable—were pirogi.

A century after the Germans began migrating to Russia, they lost some of their special privileges, including exemption from military service. When other countries beckoned new settlers, whole Volga villages moved themselves to North and South America. In 1886 and 1887, I discovered, Evangelical Lutherans from several villages on the eastern side of the Volga, near Saratov, settled in Fresno County.

Fresno is a good place to grow watermelons. So is the Lower Volga, a Russian culinary dictionary assured me. Watermelons grow so abundantly from Kamyshin to Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, that until recently much of the crop was either brined or boiled into nardek—watermelon molasses! Modern transport allows the shipping of fresh watermelon today, so nardek is produced in only small amounts. It’s a lot of trouble to make, after all, and today refined sugar is cheap. For Fresno Lutherans, however, the tradition lives on, or at least it was still alive in 1979. Nearly a century after their ancestors had come to Fresno from Russia, the Friendly Aid Society members still required watermelon molasses to make a proper coffeecake.

The Friendly Aid Society members called their watermelon molasses by the English name, the same one I used. But I thank Sara for sending me on the trail of an old word—nardek—for my invention that truly wasn’t new at all.

41 thoughts on “Honey from a Watermelon”

  1. Interesting! I wonder if you could use it in place of corn syrup. Last year, someone brought a jar of green tomato molasses into the OSU Extension Master Food Preserver Office. I was surprised by its dark color and deep, rich taste. I think they were using it for some kind of bug bait (my memory is hazy here…) but it would be fine in cooking.

    1. Bug bait! That’s really funny. And why green tomatoes, I wonder? I’d think you’d need far fewer ripe tomatoes to make a given amount of molasses. As for substituting fruit molasses for corn syrup, I’m no chemist, but I’d think that if the purpose were to prevent crystallization, as in candy making, fruit molasses ought to work. And it would probably provide a more interesting flavor, though the color might be problematic.
      Thanks for writing, Jennifer!

  2. I am of German descent and enjoyed Sara’s rundown of her experience with making watermelon molasses (we call it watermelon honey). I remember as a child my grandfather and grandmother making watermelon honey and as Sara states, it takes all day and stinks up the whole house. I, on the other hand, love the flavor of watermelon honey. We use it to make watermelon kuchen (which is the yeasted coffee cake Sara talked about). It is a big hit in the Northeast corner of the panhandle of Texas (a lot of Germans settled here). I am patiently waiting for the cookbook “Our Favorite Recipes” to come back in stock so I can purchase it.

      1. I’ll try to find my grandmother’s recipe for watermelon kuchen. Another one of our (my family’s) favorites is cheese kuchen (made with dry cottage cheese) mmm, mmm good!Your article above is the first time I’ve ever heard of that “nardek” word.

  3. I need to do some scanning of this “Our Favorite Recipes”, it looks like. It contains recipes for many coffee cakes–yeasted and not, with and without watermelon molasses. There’s a flat kuchen baked on a sheet pan, topped with a sour cream custard and then a crumb topping referred to as “rivals,” and that sounds especially good to me. Only calls for 2 tablespoons of watermelon molasses in the kuchen dough.
    Tracing Volga German culture in North America has been fascinating, especially how it has melded with different regional American traditions. German food heritage with a Russian influence, executed in a very American way. Thanks to Linda and all who have commented. I enjoy every new thing I learn about this! (But I still will probably not make watermelon again molasses for a long while…)

    1. Sara, from my Aunt Esther Karst of Kansas, her sisters, and there mother, made “Sláecks a Kuchèn” with this Watermelon Molasses, to make the topping, “Rivels”
      Heat butter in pan, mix ½ cup sugar, into butter. Sift out one cup flour, put in pan. While shaking flour, pour melted butter into pan, this will make round balls from 1/4 to ½ inch in size. Set aside. after the molassas is spread on the dough, place the Rivels on top of the molasses, Place in oven 350 F for 15-18 minutes. Let cool and cut it into 3″ squares and serve. Its the greatest desert from the Volga germans.

  4. By the way, if you have never had bierox (bierocks) or grebble you need to try them. Bierox is a pastry filled with cooked hamburger, cabbage and onions, salt and pepper (garlic powder optional). It is a normal meal during the year at our house. We usually make grebble around New Years which is a deep fried pastry sprinkled with sugar.

  5. Mary Beth, thanks for yet another spelling of bierox/bierocks/beerocks.
    Curious about where you were going to buy a copy of the Friendly Aid Society cookbook, I found the book listed at oldcookbooks.com. But the publication date is given there as 1961. Sara, could you check the date on your copy? I’m thinking the book must have been published no later than the mid-sixties, because I found elsewhere on the Web that the church building was sold in 1966, to the African-American-run Temple Church of God!
    Sara and Mary Beth, I hope you get together in your study of Volga German cookery and consider publishing a new book or at least an article on the subject. And please do send me a recipe for coffee cake with watermelon molasses!

  6. What a memory you brought back for me! My husband, Skip, and I were married in 1971. He was from a Volga Deutch family who had settled in Colorado, north of Denver. He was in the Navy, stationed at NAS Lemoore, California (south of Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley). A few weeks after we were married, we decided to take in the sights at the Orange County Fair, and were completely taken aback when we saw a booth advertising “Beer Rocks – $1.00.” Curiosity got the best of us, and we were so surprised, when our beer rocks turned out to be what his family called “pirog”! And the group who were making them were from a Portugese community group! Needless to say, we enjoyed our lunch immensely (I had not yet learned to make them myself). We agreed that while they were not as good as Mama’s, they certainly lifted a couple of homesick Colorado kids’ spirits! I really enjoy your blog–thank you!

  7. PS-check the Germans from Russia website (lincoln, NE). They have a few cookbooks, put together by the German/Russian groups.

      1. Just found this article and the responses. You found one of the Germans from Russia websites at NDSU, but there is another one headquartered in Lincoln–AHSGR, short for American Historical Society of Germans from Russia which preceded the organization headquartered in North Dakota. The second organization formed because of the belief that AHSGR focused too much on “Volga Germans” rather than the “Black Sea Germans.” This ethnic group (Germans from Russia) have both an interesting history and a love of food!

        1. Thanks, Mary, for explaining why there are two similar organizations of Germans from Russia. You’re right about this ethnic group: Germans from Russia and their descendants have produced an amazing number of community cookbooks since their arrival in the United States. Even those descendants who no longer speak a word of German still love exploring their families’ culinary past.

  8. My grandparrents came from this section of Russia, and my mother and aunts would make some of these fantastic recipies. What was especially good was to take a piece of fresh baked bread, dip it in the watermelon molasses and then in fresh cream. Delightful! Unfortunately, so many of their recipies were not written down. They also would make a chicken noodle soup (homemade egg noodles, of course!) with “butterballs”. These were made by crumbling up bread, crusts and all, so fine that it was nearly like flour, and combining it with egg, allspice and some other ingredients. This was formed into 1″ balls and cooked with the soup. The soup was usually served with chicken breasts sauteed with onion and butter in a cream sauce. Reading about other people’s experience with this type of cookery has stirred up lots of fond memories. Thanks!

    1. My maternal. grandmother and fraternal grandfather also came from this region of Russia, My Mother and grandmother made watermelon honey and used it in Kuchen. My grandmother also made the butterballs and homemade noodles for her soup. They called them wedding dumplings and it was a tradition for their family to have them on Christmas Eve. We grew up eating and learning how to make Bierox. Delicious recipes and wonderful family memories. I wish there was somewhere we could buy a jar of that watermelon honey. It was so good. My grandparents settled in Oklahoma after arriving from Russia. Where did your family grow up?

      1. Tambra, I assume your ancestors were German speakers? I have German ancestry through both parents, but as far as I know none of my ancestors ever lived in Russia.

        Not long after I published the post on watermelon syrup/honey/molasses, I got an urgent-looking response from a Turkish company. Unfortunately, I can’t read Turkish, so I deleted the comment, but I think the message was that this company made and sold watermelon syrup. Try searching the Web for karpuz pekmezi, or just pekmezi, and I think you’ll surmise that in Turkey natural, no-added-sugar fruit syrups are still quite popular. There’s an opportunity here for a Turkish-English bilingual person who is interested in the import-export business!

  9. Wonderful article! I just wanted to put in that my family has a connection with many of these recipes as well…my mother’s side is German Lutheran and came to Kansas by way of Russia. We have many of the same recipes in our family, under slightly different names. Grandma would often prepare her Bierocks (accent on the first syllable), for instance, and although we usually used Great-Grandma’s butterball soup recipe for fishing bait, it also made a nice meal. But everyone’s favorite “heritage food” definitely had to be Grandma’s Schlexel Kuchen (Schlexel, of course, being the local word for watermelon molasses), and we were very sad when she ran out of Schlexel, and mom–because of the smell and mess–refused to let us cook more at home. A few years ago (sadly, after Grandma passed away), I decided to boil down some melons and recreate the old experience. Now every year I make more Schlexel and give it out as gifts to the family at Christmas.

    Sadly, the exact recipe Grandma used for Schlexel Kuchen is lost with her (and may even have been her own creation, we’re not sure), but my mother and I have experimented in the kitchen and we think we’ve come up with the recipe.

    Schlexel Kuchen
    soft bread dough (frozen dough from the supermarket has the right consistency)
    1/2 cup sugar
    1/2 cup butter
    1 cup flour
    9×9 or 13×9 pan

    First, mix the revels for topping: mix the flour and sugar, then soften the butter and mix it in with a fork or pastry cutter. Clumps are good to have.

    Grease the pan and put the dough in. You want the dough to be pushed down flat, filling the corners of the pan. Cover the top with Schlexel: don’t drown the dough, but don’t skimp either. Then sprinkle the revels on top. We always squeeze the mix together to create larger clumps, because powder doesn’t do much, but nice clumps (about the size of a dime or a penny) are a real treat.

    Bake as per the instructions for the bread, but take it out of the oven as soon as a toothpick comes out clean–probably 5 or even 10 minutes less than the usual baking time for the bread. Do NOT allow a crust to form.

    -In loving memory, Delma Irene Dumler.

  10. Their bierocks or berrocks—the accent is on the second syllable—were pirogi.
    Pirogi from the Polish communities are a pasta stuffed and cooked filled with savory or sweet stuffing. The fruit filled dumplings of the Germans of Russia are similar.
    I don’t know of the Polish food traditions to say if they cooked sweets and savories inside sweet dough.
    Does any one have seed for the ‘volga’ watermelon of Colorado beetworkers or the ‘ Dakota Sweet’ a.k.a Early Kansas also brought by immigrants from the Volga before or around 1900. The disease of watermelons in the Volga region in 1914 wiped out the old varieties in Russia so those brought by immigrants are what remains. I would like to locate and grow these to experience the syrup my family talked about. Please post a commercial source or collection here or if the writer could pass on the information to obtain seeds.

  11. These are all foods I grew up with in Western Kansas. The schlexel kuchen is out of this world! Do you know if anyone makes schlexel to sell? I would love to make the bread, but would never go to the time and work it takes to make the schelexel(watermelon molasses)

    1. Also wanted to add that I read Sara’s article about her making schlexal(by the way that is not the correct spelling) and she neglected the ingredient that makes it so very unique! Anise! After it has become thick like syrup, just a touch of anise was added. Sounds like a very unusual combination I know…. but makes it sooooo good. Also, the syrup would be reheated and thickened before pouring on top of dough before adding rivels and baking.

      1. For those who love anise, I’m sure it would be a lovely addition to schexel.
        Spellings of various culinary terms vary quite a lot among the German-from-Russia recipes I’ve seen. I imagine this is due to differences in dialect and literacy among the Germans from Russia as well as to their descendants’ loss of familiarity with the ancestral language.

    2. I haven’t heard of any commercial production of schlexel/nardek/watermelon molasses/watermelon honey in the United States. Perhaps schexel could be imported from Russia, or even Turkey (I got a comment from a Turkish syrup manufacturer soon after posting this piece, but I deleted the comment because it was in Turkish, which I can’t read).

  12. I saw an article about ‘watermelon molasses’ and tried to research; this lead me to Sara Bir’s article and to yours. Here is what I have discovered thus far:

    Planter’s Banner newspaper, Franklin, Parish of St. Mary, (Attakapas,) Louisiana
    13 September 1851; Page 3, Column 3

    Water-Melon Sugar – The Chicago Tribune acknowledges the receipt of a small quantity of this article, and says: “We have seen and used sugar made of cane, maple, corn and beets, but we have never seen any so pure and deliciously sweet as this. To our mind it is equal to the best quality of honey. The water-melon possesses a great amount of saccharine matter in a very pure state, and we do not see how making sugar from it could not be a profitable business in a climate adapted to the growth of it.”
    Found a reference in September 1888, Seymour Daily Democrat newspaper, Seymour, IN stating that farmers were making watermelon molasses in the bottoms. Jackson County, IN is renowned for their melons, watermelon and cantaloupe, so it makes sense they would try to make suck. A note aside – there is a strong Lutheran community in Jackson County, IN as well.
    Hopkinsville Kentuckian newspaper, Hopkinsville, KY
    Friday 26 September 1890; Front Page, Column 5

    Watermelon Molasses – Express the juice by hand, by putting the core of the melon into a coarse sack. Then strain it and boil it down into the proper consistency in copper of(sic) iron kettle. It is pleasant to the taste and keeps fruit well when used to preserve them. It will not make good sugar, from the waxy properties of the suirp(sic), when boiled to that consistency. One acre will yield twenty barrels of molasses, and it is a fine substitute for sugar cane. It would be economy to use them in this way late in the season, when you have more melons than you can dispose of. – Ohio Farmer
    1890 several newspapers running the article that watermelon sugar was not being produced in California and could not produce sugar, but only a sticky molasses.
    1897 – Omaha Bee newspaper says leave the watermelon alone. Do not grind up the essence of summer to make sugar.


    Also ‘riebles’ is a name for a soup with tiny small bits put into a broth, quick and easy. It is in a cookbook produced by the Amana colony of Amana, Iowa.

    1. Gaye, thanks so much for sharing all your research. It’s interesting that even in this land of cheap cane and beet sugar some people have found it practical to boil down their excess watermelons into molasses. Feeding the melons to livestock might make more sense, but, then again, making watermelon molasses is easy enough, and the stuff does has a special flavor.

  13. Funny, I tasted my watermelon preserves and thought, gee whiz, they taste like honey. I thought I had come up with something new 🙂 There is nothing new under the sun, apparently. Because here I find out about watermelon molasses. Very interesting article. And I love taking a watermelon and cutting into bits you can sink your teeth into, add one part sugar to two parts watermelon rind bits with a little of the red, pour a little lemon juice in, and slow cook to a soft boil until thick and amber and you get this ooey gooey honey tasting preserves that are out of this world!

  14. I can clearly remember watermelon harvest from our country garden, where we kids would help Mom cut open watermeloms and scrape the sweet stuff into a big caldron. This big pot was placed outside and stoked with wood.Mom would heat and stry the contents until it had evaporated about 85 % of the moisture, then she would put it in 1 quart jars through a seive to take out all the seeds.This was her sweetner supply for cakes and cookies for the winter. Neil W.

  15. My family came from the German/Russian area. We call it Watermelon Honey. We would use it in a pastry called Watermelon Kugha. It also is used in a German cookie called Pheffernies. Many of my Family settled in Texas and Oklahoma. Watermelon Honey takes all day to cook down the juice but well worth the end result.

  16. While Ukraine is known for its honey, and Mennonites were able to grow some sugar cane in both Ukraine and Kansas, the common pastry syrup was indeed made from watermelons — though the classic melons were the white melons you can still find in places such as Saskatchewan or Alberta. The melons would be compressed and the juice boiled down to make a thick syrup that was used in syrup cookies, papanate, and cakes — or even drizzled on fried fresh egg noodles and cracklings. Most Mennonites, but not all, now use Karo in the lower Midwest or Maple syrup in the Canadian prairies.

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