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  • Writer's pictureBrandi Bird

Nice Melons

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

The truth is, growing food is boring. I know, I know, now I have to surrender my gardener’s card. My composting privileges are revoked. I will turn in my spade and muddy boots, post haste. It’s always flowers that have interested and moved me; I especially love the scraggly ones that thrive in sidewalk cracks, the vining ones that climb defeated walls, the wide swaths of defiant “ditch weeds” that swaddle highways taking in the noxious fumes of diesel humanity and turning them into beauty. So in the hierarchy of the gardening community, that places me solidly at the bottom of the pyramid, possibly off the triangle all together. At the top and the pinnacle are the people who grow beautiful, but fussy things, the “real gardeners” who dabble in Ph levels and perform chemistries, and correct you when you mispronounce the Latin names. The middle of the pyramid, the solid bulk of the middle class, are the “productive gardeners.” They grow with a sense of utility and purpose; they can measure their success in ounces and baskets. They hate bugs and blights. They throw club sized zucchinis into your rolled down window at stop signs if you are not careful. They try to gift you with cucumbers that aren’t pickles, yet. In my mind, growing food gardens was for predictable waterers who like straight lines. The well behaved gardeners. Just not my cup of compost tea.

This prejudice was set into me by my mother, a self-confessed vegetable hater. At the dinner table, she made her plate sans watery Brussel sprouts from a frozen block, without the canned spinach, without pale wrinkled lima beans or bloated parsnips. I was the “good eater” (with the exception of the much dreaded and unskinned pot roast carrots), so I set to work on whatever was in front of me, not that there was a choice. It boggles my mind that children make their own plates now, or worse, dictate what the entire family eats. Whatever you didn’t eat found its way onto your plate at the next meal in my house. I learned from experience from the 3 day egg sandwich standoff. All I can say is that eggs are better hot. My younger brother wanted only bread or meat, which he painstakingly defatted with his fingers in a grotesque and distracting way, managing to raise the ire of the entire table without a word. A prelude of the evening’s entertainment. My goal was to finish quickly and be excused from the table before the inevitable drama he created every night like clockwork.

“Why don’t YOU have to eat this?” he would sob dramatically to our mother over his peas or jarred beets.

“I did my time,” my mother would reply coolly, unphased.

She was very concerned with our nutrition; she had studied food services at Vo-Tech. We didn’t have junk food in the house because it was expensive and full of sugar, which she believed stunted children’s growth and created behavioral problems. We only had a can of soda when we went to the laundromat, and we had to share it, and it had to be caffeine-free Sprite or orange soda, never brown soda, which she said would stain our teeth. We shared it by counting out, “One-one thousand,” while the other took a drink. But he could chug faster than I could and I hated drinking from the slobbery can after him, so generally I took the first drink as long as I could until he could wrestle it out of my hand and he had the rest.

We only had candy at Easter or Halloween and she guarded it like a dragon’s horde placing it in a pillowcase on top of the fridge, doling out only a few pieces every day and then throwing the remainder away when she deemed we had had enough. A great many childhood hours were spent conspiring together to hide troves of the candy we had EARNED through costumed begging or the candy that JESUS WANTED US TO HAVE on his holy Easter day. We tortured ourselves with plots, convinced she was enjoying it herself, perhaps enjoying it piece by piece with her sisters, laughing at our childish impotence, although we never saw her eat any besides the occasional black jellybean (barf!).

“She wants it for herself,” my brother wailed into his pillow as he beat his tiny fists against the mattress in distress.

His chocolate obsession brought him to low places. In desperation he pulled out the kitchen drawers and climbed them like steps, retrieving the foil wrapped baking chocolate from the high pantry cupboard. She only used the baking chocolate at Christmas; the Baker’s Best possibly predated the house as an inheritance. There might still be half a bar left to this day. He gnawed off a bite through the wrapper like a rat and erupted into tears letting the half chewed bitter mess fall from the open O of his mouth onto his striped shirt.

Another time he delayed the departure for a family camping trip because he had hidden and gorged himself on 5 Hershey chocolate bars and a half a jar of pickles the night before. He spent the morning throwing up his crime while I waited in the backseat of the loaded car, reading a book. He had pilfered the bars, which were allotted for camping S’Mores while my mother was distracted with preparations and packing the cooler. He paid a second time for that crime when we had chocolateless S’Mores a few nights later and we all reminded him of his indiscretion and selfishness.

The next year, he smugly informed me he had found a candy bar in our mother’s dresser drawer and offered to share it with me. He pulled the waxy contraband from his pocket, it was in a plastic sandwich bag. I was four years older than he was; I could clearly read the “Ex Lax” imprinted into each tiny square.

“No thanks, “ I said. He wasn’t punished for that indiscretion as the sin was punishment enough.

I wouldn’t tell on him, anyway; we were brought up to believe that telling was a deplorable habit, worse even than spitting in public. My mother punished both teller and tellee, which I believe to this day is a very good policy. The punishment for tattling was that we had to hold hands and sit on the couch until we sincerely loved each other. It was terrible and generally resulted in us trying to squeeze the bones out of one another’s hands to exhausted defeat. I used a similar policy as a teacher, years later.

“Is anyone doing something dangerous that could get them or another person hurt?” I would ask.

“No,” was always the disappointed answer from the tattling student.

“Good, now you get to work together,” I would reply, moving their desks close together.

My brother’s chocolate addiction notwithstanding, my mother and her six sisters had the great responsibility of keeping a massive garden through childhood. My grandfather approached a neighbor on the edge of town and devised an arrangement to sharecrop the unused lot in exchange for some of the produce. The man was elderly, with no children of his own, and agreed. My grandmother still speaks of him fondly; perhaps he was moved more by her plight of feeding seven children while being married to an unemployable alcoholic. The garden labor was solely my grandfather’s undertaking and he deployed his army of children to weed, hoe, and pick all he planted. My grandmother’s only gardening responsibility was in preserving the great

harvest. My mother once said of my grandmother that she could “Can anything that wasn’t nailed down.” She did not mean it as a compliment when she said it.

So the seven sisters labored on both ends, in the garden, producing, and in the hot August kitchen, preserving. They were city children and while their friends went to the great public pool, or rode bikes through the alleys, or ate Snowcaps in the cool darkness of the enormous movie theater, having snuck in through the exit door, they, the sisters, were sweating over vegetables.

It turns out, my mother was considered the picky eater of her family so my brother’s antics were just karmic justice. She detested most of all the great vats of vegetable soup that caught all the earthy bounty of my grandfather’s garden. Green beans were her undoing and if she couldn’t sneak them onto her sister, Angie’s, plate, she made great theatrics of pinching her nose and gagging them down.

“They have fur on them!” she sobbed as she heaved.

Such was her hatred of green beans, she made me promise to never feed them to her if she had to go to the old folk’s home. My promise was not necessary as she never made it to retirement. So legendary was my mother’s disgust for green beans that her older sister, my Aunt Vickie, who had to get one last dig in, spoke of it during my mother’s funeral.

So whether because of the association for the distasteful work involved or the fuzziness of green beans, my mother didn’t plant a vegetable garden. She had a fantastic green thumb for house plants; she was known for it actually, and she propagated plants effortlessly in shot glasses on window sills. I truthfully thought that’s what the tiny glasses were for until I was an adult and saw them in context, full of liquor. No one in my family ever drank booze in such tiny communion cups, so it was a fair misunderstanding.

I happen to love eating all vegetables, but had no desire to grow them. When I started selling plants, I had to appeal to the masses and vegetables are easy to start and can be sold generally between 4 and 6 weeks. Many flowers take at least 12 weeks to even get to a size someone might want to buy, and I have learned that lots of people only want to buy a flower when it is in bloom, which in my opinion, means you are missing some of the best joys of growing a flower. So I leafed through the seed catalogs looking for possibilities with all the enthusiasm one might muster for say the dentist or the DMV. Tomatoes, of course, home gardeners love to grow tomatoes, so I picked those to buy, although I couldn’t commit to cucumbers, zucchini, or squash, which I see as mostly tasteless weeds because of how prolific and unwanted they are. Has someone ever given you a brown bag bursting with produce because they had too much? I would bet it was zucchini, cucumbers, or yellow squash. They are the common cold of the garden because they get passed around so easily and linger forever without remedy.

I half-heartedly settled on some okra and some interesting beans, when the cantaloupes caught my eye. Now she might have disliked vegetables, but my mother loved fruit. We always had apples and oranges in the house, which were cheap and could last a long time. There was always fruit at lunch and fruit was dessert too - either homemade applesauce, or canned fruit cocktail that I mined for the precious and rare cherry slivers. Bananas were usually around, but I wasn’t wild about how easily they got banged up and bruised. Grapes were a treat that didn’t last long but she made delicious purple jelly from the Concord grapes which grew untended along a back gate at one house we lived in. I remember clearly the upturned jars sparkling like richly hued jewels on tea towels on the counter. She called it “Pain in the Ass Jelly,” because of the many steps involved in skinning and deseeding the dusky globes of grapes. Cantaloupe was the fruit she enjoyed privately, usually only when we ate at the kind of restaurants where you made your own plate at the salad bar. She would always pick orange smiles of melon and eat it with a knife and fork. At home we didn’t use a knife or fork, we plucked irregular chunks from a large white plastic bowl with our fingers. As a child, I ate cantaloupe just because it was there, but my mother ate it because she truly enjoyed it. The idea that I could actually grow a cantaloupe seemed mildly exotic, like having a pet hedgehog. I carefully read each description and settled on the Petit Gris de Rennes variety, a French heirloom proclaimed the “champagne of cantaloupes” by melon aficionados. The superlative comments on the taste drew me in, but the manageable size and history of the melon sealed the deal. I was in.

The seeds germinated quickly, I think I planted 60 and 60 came up. The fuzzy leaves and darling tendrils unfurled quickly. I had to pot them up twice before selling them at the market. It was the very first plant I sold, from a parking lot, alone with handmade signs. An old Choctaw woman got out of a car and looked my plants over carefully. She had a low ponytail and had snuff in her mouth. She handed me some crumpled bills.

“Here,” I said, handing her a second melon plant. “I want you to have two, no charge, I hope they grow well for you.”

She smiled and patted me on the arm. They were the only plants I sold that first time, but I was grateful that she took a chance on a stranger’s offering and it made me think, maybe I can actually do this thing. I’ll never forget her.

Melons and cucumbers look suspiciously similar as young plants (they are both in the same cucurbits family, so don’t plant them close together or the taste will be off), so I devised a high tech marketing plan of writing “Nice Melons” and drawing some breast shaped eyeballs with a sharpie on a piece of printer paper to draw in customers at my next market. Whether through curiosity or guerilla marketing, the melons were the first things I sold out of this year. The charming little yellow flowers that popped along the growing vines only added to their allure. I staked the baby plants with pencils from my teaching stash. The bees loved them; I loved watching the fat-bottomed bumble bees disappear into the cheerful diminutive blooms. And perhaps best of all, the cantaloupes were incredibly resilient, which I believe is their French bloodlines showing out. I sold all but seven, which I planted in my own garden. Five went into buckets drilled out and lined along the fence and two went into a square raised bed with some tomato plants.

Although it is a delicious melon, the Petit Gris de Rennes is generally not grown commercially in the United States because of its very short shelf life and thin skin, which is not ideal for traveling great distances. They should be eaten the day they are picked. This French heirloom melon is at least 400 years old and thanks to the efforts of just one family of market growers in Rennes (from whence it is named), this cantaloupe survived to the early 20th century where thankfully it made enough of a resurgence to get to me. The seeds can be found easily enough online, but I have never seen a live plant for sale of this cultivar (besides the ones I sold this year). I hope that some of the 53 PGDR melon plants I sold did as well as mine did and that maybe this heirloom treasure will spread through my little corner of the world.

I watered the plants sometimes between summer rains, but I left them alone besides that. The cantaloupes gave and gave. They unfolded long arms that stretched unstaked along the ground and up the fence. The leafy arms embraced the Mississippi sun that the other plants shrugged despondently from in the afternoon heat. The vines burst into flowers, a joy in their own right, and then I watched in amazement as some of the flowers grew swollen and pregnant. Tiny melons covered in soft white hairs. “This is really something,” I thought, not really sure what to do next. So I left them alone and did nothing, which I am very good at.

Every morning, I delighted in marking the progress of the melons. When they were the size of baseballs, I plucked off the punier ones so that each vine sported just two melons. They continued to thrive and I giggled out loud when I would find a rogue melon hiding out under leaves. A melon is already a secret because everything good is inside, but you can’t see it. So finding one is a secret within a secret, like a chlorophyll-ed plot twist.

As they approached ripeness, I started to fret about my melons. What if they split? What if the birds peck at them? What if I pick them too early? Every morning, I gave a little tug to see if they pulled easily from the vine and they didn’t. I gave them a sniff, which instinct told me would be the best way to determine if they were ready. Part of me didn’t want them to ever be ready, such an enjoyable part of my routine was this melon check. I asked the internet; as usual, nothing was as helpful as my own experience. One lady wrote, “I just normally sacrifice one to cracks then I know they are ready, lol.”

Lol? This is not a lol situation, lady. We are talking about my melons here. Heathen.

This morning, twin melons, side by side, smiled up at me. Their perfume had caused me to glance down; I smelled them before I saw them. A passing rainfall had pushed them to over the brink in the night, and their slightly yellowing skins split into tiny smiles at the base. I panicked. Were they ruined? I saw no evidence of bugs, yet, so I rushed them into the house to see if they were salvageable. In the white light of the kitchen OR, I split the melons and scooped out the plentiful double pointed seeds. They were absolutely beautiful. The skin of the melon was thin and firm and the flesh of the melon had the perfect wet give of rich sweetness. I was surprised that my first inclination as I prepared the melons was that they needed to be shared.

“Try it,” she would say passing the final curve of the cantaloupe smile onto my plate. She had a belief that a lady never finished everything on her plate; it was a sign of good manners to leave ‘little bites', she called them. “You don’t need to eat like a field hand!” she would admonish me, the good eater.

I liked that she passed me the cantaloupe and not my brother, who wouldn’t touch it, and was generally trying to load his salad bar plate with as much chocolate pudding as he could because he knew our mother wouldn’t let him put it back and his father wouldn’t let him waste it. It was something we shared, this cantaloupe, and I always ate what she shared with me even if it were underripe and tasted green and watery. If it was a good cantaloupe, picked at the right time, not hit with methane gas and kept too pretty, but a good one from a roadside stand or traded from the Amish, who grew huge oblong melons with flat spots where they touched the ground. If it was a nice melon, we would share a look and I would get an inkling of her appreciation.

I rinsed the seeds in a colander in my sink and then spread them on parchment paper. I sliced the melon into thin wedges then peeled off the gray striped skins. I cut the slivers of fragrant orange melon into a squared off glass bowl and let it get nice and cold for a minute in the fridge while I cleaned up. I gave a piece to the dog and he didn’t spit it out which got me very excited because then I knew it was going to be good. I realized that I had enjoyed every part of growing these cantaloupes, my first ever edible harvest. From picking the seed from the catalog to rolling the first chilled caramelly bite around my tongue, I marveled at this anomaly. What is a cantaloupe beside a manifestation of the sun’s love? I offered up the rinds to the compost pile so they can come back. In nature nothing is wasted.

I have decided I will always grow this melon, as long as I can, because it has a special place in my heart now. I will save the seeds to plant and share, because that’s what you do with a good melon, you share it.


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