BY KURT MICHAEL FRIESE
Is the true Muscatine melon extinct? This may seem like an odd question in the UJuly heat when the melon trucks are appearing at crossroads and parking lots around southeast Iowa, but it is truly something to consider.
According to a report prepared by Sue Futrell, et al, at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, 90 percent of the open-pollinated varieties planted in the Muscatine area 100 years ago are now extinct. Tragic as this is, it should not come as a surprise, as loss of crop species diversity has accelerated at an alarming rate for the last century. Seventy-five percent of European food product diversity has been lost since 1900. Ninety-three percent of American food product diversity has been lost in the same time period. Thirty-three percent of livestock varieties have disappeared or are near disappearing. Nearly 30,000 vegetable varieties have become extinct in the last century, and one more is lost every six hours.
With plenty of subsidies to be had for corn and soy, and none for fruits or vegetables, is it any surprise?
The good news is that the good stuff can still be found, if you look hard and know what you are looking for. If you are lucky enough to have older friends or relatives who have been gardening or farming in the region from Muscatine to Conesville, ask them what they remember about the melons of their youth. First, they will, to a person, say they tasted better back then. After this they’ll tell you about some differences between their melons and those of the rest of the world.
A Muscatine melon isn’t any one particular melon; it’s a variety of types that are grown in the sandy soils along the Mississippi river. But what has become most popular is a form of muskmelon—thus the confusion. Muskmelon does not derive its name from being grown near Muscatine, but rather from its heady, sweet, musky aroma.
The first way to spot a traditional Muscatine muskmelon is from the ridges, called “sutures.” The similar melons from California, Arizona, and Mexico are round. Both have “netting,” that odd, rough pattern on the skin, but it is less pronounced on the Muscatine varieties. Lastly, Muscatine melons ripen best on the vine, which improves their flavor but reduces their shelf life. The commercially produced melons of the giant southwestern farms are picked green, and then force ripened in transit. This is why you won’t find real Muscatine melons very far from their southeast Iowa homes.
If you want to grow these melons at home, first go out now and find the real deal at a roadside near you. Enjoy the fruit, and save the seeds! Next year, about a week after the last frost, plant them in clusters of five or six, mounded in sandy soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Make sure there’s plenty of calcium to prevent blossom end rot, work in some fresh compost, and see that your plants get about an inch of water a week.
You’ll know when you touch it, when you smell it, when you cut into its voluptuous flesh. A real Muscatine melon is ten times as seductive and luscious as its pale imitators. Wonderful plain, it is most delicious when sliced and wrapped with good prosciutto like La Quercia (www.La Quercia.us).
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Comments may be directed to Kurt@EdibleIowaRiverValley.com.