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.
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.
I was pleased to find outside the front door yesterday a package from Gwen Schock Cowherd, my cherished advisor on all foods German-from-Russia. Gwen had sent a jar of her prize-winning unfermented watermelon pickles, made in the tradition of Midwestern prairie dwellers whose German ancestors once lived beside the Black Sea in Russia.
Gwen’s fresh-pickled watermelon tastes much likemine, but with a strong, fresh dilliness and a striking, appealing saltiness. I especially like the bit of crunch provided by the sliver of white rind showing on one edge of each watermelon piece. And notice how pretty Gwen’s pickle jar looks, with the dill heads and the sliced green pepper.
Gwen kindly sent me her recipe to share with you:
Gwen’s Watermelon Pickles
BRINE: 12 cups water 2½ cups sugar 2½ cups white vinegar ¾ cup salt 1 ounce Schilling pickling spice mix
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, covered. Stir occasionally to distribute the flavor of the spices.
1 large seedless watermelon, any variety (better underripe than overripe) 2 small heads fresh dill per jar 1 slivered garlic cove per jar 1 small dried red pepper per jar (optional) 1 or 2 thin green pepper slices per jar
Peel the watermelon, leaving a thin amount of white rind. Cut the watermelon into 1-by-1/2-inch chunks. Try to leave some white rind on each chunk; this will help to keep it from disintegrating. Drain the chunks in colanders for several hours—overnight is best.
Pour off the watermelon juice. If you want to use the juice in your brine, that is OK.
Into each sterilized quart jar, put a dill head, and add watermelon to fill half the jar. Shake the jar so the pieces settle. Then add one small dried red pepper (if you like your pickles hot) and half the garlic slivers. Distribute the garlic among the watermelon chunks. Add more watermelon chunks, again shaking the jar so they settle. Add the strip(s) of green pepper and the rest of the garlic slivers, distributing them in the jar. Put another dill head at the top of the jar.
Pour the brine, boiling and strained, into the jars. (Save the extra brine for another batch. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.) Add lids and rings, and put the jars in a hot water bath. Bring the water to a boil, and boil it for 5 minutes, no longer.
Remove the jars from the bath and let them cool undisturbed for several hours. Check to see that they are sealed. Store them in a cool place.
Makes 7 quarts
Gwen says her pickles improve with age. As you can see in the picture, the ones she sent me were made in 2012. Keep in mind, though, that she stores her sealed jars in an especially cool place: a refrigerator reserved just for pickles.
As the fermentation fad spreads, some people are saying that pickles aren’t true pickles unless the solids as well as the liquid components have been fermented. Gwen’s unfermented watermelon pickles, and my slightly sweeter ones, are very different from brine-pickled watermelon, and if you try all three recipes you may well prefer one over another. But I can’t predict which you’ll like best. All of them are real pickles, and all of them are really good.
I love discovering in my garage “pantry” a forgotten jar of something unusual—a one-time experiment, most often, that I’ve neglected to taste. Sometimes the contents are unremarkable, and I search my paper and computer files for the recipe just to note that information. But once in a while the contents are fabulous, and I think, I should make this every year!
Such is the case with the watermelon pickle that I recently happened upon. Jarred up in 2011, it isn’t a rind pickle but is made entirely of red watermelon flesh. Unlike a typical rind pickle, this one isn’t syrupy; it’s only mildly sweet, and mildly sour, too. The melon pieces lack the crispness of fresh watermelon, of course, but they have a bite, almost a chewiness, and a pleasant, soft spiciness. They seem to demand a partnership with cured meat or fish of some kind—perhaps look-alike cold-smoked salmon.
I’ve written before on this blog about fermenting whole watermelons, as I learned to do through the help of Gwen Schock Cowherd, a proud descendant of Germans from Russia. I thank Gwen, too, for telling me that Midwesterners whose grandparents brined their watermelons in barrels now often pickle their melon in pieces, with vinegar.
In 2011 Gwen was planning to send me her vinegar-pickled watermelon recipe—an award-winner at the Minnesota State Fair—but she forgot, and in the meantime I found a similar-sounding recipe in a little Germans-from-Russia community cookbook, called Küche Kochen and published in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1973. From Esther Hoff’s sketchy instructions in Küche Kochen I developed the recipe that follows.
Red Watermelon Pickles in Sweetened Vinegar
A small, 3½-pound watermelon yielded the 2¼ pounds prepared pieces that I used to make 2½ pints of pickles. I’ve slightly adjusted the measurements here to fill three pint jars, for which you’ll need a melon of about 4¼ pounds. If your watermelon is bigger than that, you can either use just part of it or double or triple the recipe.
As you cut up your watermelon, be sure to reserve the excess juice. Chill the juice until you need it.
3 pounds watermelon pieces, about 2 inches square by ¾ inch thick and free of seeds and rind, including the white part (reserve the juice from the leftover seedy parts) 2 teaspoons pickling salt ¾ cup cider vinegar ¾ cup sugar 1 1-inch cinnamon stick, broken 1 small Mediterranean bay leaf Pinch of fennel seeds Pinch of coriander seeds 2 allspice berries 3 black peppercorns
Combine the watermelon pieces and salt in a bowl. Cover the bowl, and leave it at room temperature for 2 hours.
Drain the salty liquid from the melon, and measure the liquid. Add enough of the reserved juice to make 1½ cups.
Put the salty watermelon juice, the vinegar, the sugar, and the spices in a saucepan. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the watermelon pieces, bring the mixture to a boil, and reduce the heat. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes.
Ladle the watermelon pieces and their liquid into pint or half-pint jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
After several family members happily devoured my watermelon pickles, I wrote Gwen to ask about her recipe. Was it like this one?
Not exactly, Gwen said. In fact, she wondered if I’d mixed up a recipe for rind pickles with one for red watermelon pickles. Her watermelon pickles, Gwen explained, have proportionally more salt and much less sugar and vinegar than mine. She discards all the watermelon juice and replaces it with water, because she likes a clearer brine. She flavors her watermelon pickles as most people do fermented cucumber pickles, with dill heads, garlic, and a little hot pepper as well as mixed pickling spices. She tries to leave some white rind on each watermelon piece, to help keep it intact (mine held together well–perhaps the higher sugar content helped). And she likes the pieces small, no bigger than an inch by half an inch, so they are easy to eat without cutting.
I will certainly try Gwen’s recipe next summer, and if she lets me I’ll share it with you. As for my recipe, I can’t call it Esther’s, because Esther didn’t specify how much salt or exactly what mix of spices to use, and perhaps she meant to call for water and forgot. But I love the way my watermelon pickles turned out. I’ll definitely make them again—though perhaps I’ll leave on a little of the white rind. And maybe I’ll reduce their size a bit, too.
In my blog post about Moldova I shared my daughter’s photo of watermelons that had been brined intact, and I promised to write about how to pickle watermelons in this way. Before watermelon season passes again, I want to share my own photos and a recipe.
I first tasted brined watermelon some fifteen years ago, when I bought a few slices from Guss’ Pickles, whose retail shop was a sidewalk stand on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If you liked your pickles crisp, fuggetaboudit! The brined watermelon was soft and slimy. It seemed more tomato than melon. But its sweet and sour brininess grew on me.
Much later, I sought advice about pickling watermelons from Gwen Schock Cowherd, a descendant of Germans from Russia—that is, Germans who went to live in Russia after Catherine the Great, in 1763, invited foreigners to immigrate without having to give up their language or religious traditions, pay taxes, or serve in the military. The first of these German immigrants settled along the Volga River, where watermelons were a major crop (later, other Germans settled on the north shore of the Black Sea). A century after their migration began, Germans in Russia lost their special privileges, and whole villages picked themselves up and moved to the Americas—Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and the United States. Today the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those immigrants still celebrate their Russian-flavored German heritage.
I wanted to know how Germans from Russia pickled whole watermelons. Were the melons fermented or pickled in vinegar? Was sugar added, and were spices included? Were holes poked in the melons to let the brine penetrate?
The melons were of small, firm varieties, Gwen told me, and they ranged from green to ripe. They were always fermented intact. “Do not poke holes in the melons, or the juice will run out,” she warned. With no poking, “the salt water will penetrate the rind and thus preserve the melon. The sweet comes from the melons themselves.” As Gwen remembered, less ripe melons turned out more salty and sour than sweet. Each melon tasted different, because “with the rind intact you didn’t know what you were brining.”
Gwen sent me Mrs. Henry Lindemann’s recipe for “sour watermelons,” from the German Russian Pioneer Cookbook, published in Eureka, South Dakota, in 1975 (Germans from Russia and their American descendants have published hundreds of community cookbooks). Mrs. Lindeman would line the bottom of a 30-gallon barrel with dill, fill the barrel with melons, top them with more dill, and add 1½ cups sugar, 1 cup vinegar, 6 pounds salt, “lots of red peppers,” and garlic. Then she would fill the barrel with water and weight the melons with a board and a rock.
In Sei Unser Gast (“Be Our Guest”), a cookbook published by the North Star Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in Minneapolis in 1996, a writer left the sugar, vinegar, peppers, and garlic out of her watermelon pickle but added grape leaves. According to Küchen Kochen, published by the Lincoln, Nebraska, branch of the same organization in 1973, some cooks scattered cherry rather than grape leaves throughout the barrel, along with hunks of ripe melon flesh.Gwen’s own grandma left out all of those extras but added pickling spices. “I guess you can spice them anyway you want,” Gwen said. As with cucumber pickles, there is no single right way to season a watermelon pickle.
In the fall of 2010, I decided to try pickling Golden Midget, a 3-pound watermelon variety that had been developed at the University of New Hampshire in the mid-twentieth century. Borne on yellow-leaved vines, the little fruits tell you when they’re ripe by turning from light green to lemon-yellow. I figured their size would make them perfect for pickling. I used two of them to make my own version of—
Whole Pickled Watermelons
2 3-pound watermelons 2 tablespoons dill seed 8 peeled garlic cloves 6 small dry hot peppers, slit lengthwise 10 tablespoons pickling salt 5 quarts water
Put the melons into a large crock or food-grade plastic pail with the dill, garlic, and peppers. Stir the salt into the water until it dissolves, and pour the brine over the melons. Weight them with a clean rock or a plate or board topped with a water-filled jar. Be sure the watermelons remain well immersed in the brine. Cover the crock with a cloth, and let the crock stand at room temperature.
Check the crock daily, and skim off any yeast or mold. Wait at least four weeks before cutting open a watermelon. At this point you might move the crock to a cellar, where the remaining melons should keep all winter.
On New Year’s Eve of the same year, I cut open one of the melons. The flesh was glistening, tender, and red throughout. The melon smelled and tasted like a strong fermented cucumber pickle, with extra sweetness and the slimy texture I remembered from the pickled watermelon I’d tasted in New York. I took the melon to a New Year’s Eve party, and people tasted it with interest. For some a little taste was enough, but others ate big slices with gusto.
The next time I pickle watermelon, I’ll do a few things differently. Because I had to skim mold off the brine for an extended period, I’ll use a crock with a water lock. I might add a little vinegar to curb mold growth or some cucumber pickle brine to speed the fermentation. And I’ll add a little sugar, just to see what difference it makes.
My single complaint about Golden Midget is that its thin rind caved in a bit with brining, so that the pickled melons looked like partially deflated playground balls. But an icebox melon with a thicker rind might collapse this way, too, according to my Moldovan friend Cristina. Still, next year I may try a variety that Germans from Russia might have chosen generations ago, such as Astrakhanski, Melitopolski, or the white-fleshed Cream of Saskatchewan.
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.