A Taste of Winter Watermelon

Winter King and Queen watermelonMy 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 Weaver described ‘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.