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.