In much of the world, it’s just called muskmelon. Its skin is like a snake, its fruit is not particularly sweet, its nutrient value is surprisingly high, and its family is large, including cousins cucumber, zucchini, and casaba.
So why do we call it Wolf Song?
Cantaloupe (song of the wolf), as we generally know it here in the US, is a cucurbit that sprang from the south and eastern side of the Mediterranean. It sneaked into southern Europe and was adopted by Italians in the county of Cantalupo, near Rome. As every schoolchild knows, Rome was built on seven hills by a family of wolves. And wolves howl. So the big hard ball with its strange creepy exterior and its welcoming orange interior became the Latin cantalupo, properly named for the area where it was grown, the place where the wolf sings. The Romans, who spoke Latin, not Romanese, had a penchant for claiming and naming things. The Cantalupo melon later crept its vinous way into France. The French changed its name, but not its marvelous flavor, by moving the o around and adding a snobbish e on the end.
The muskmelon, as grown elsewhere, can be anything from the pale green honeydew to the thick-skinned casaba with its cucumber-ish taste, to the yellow, oval-shaped and sweeter Crenshaw. A cantaloupe is always a muskmelon, but not all muskmelons are cantaloupes. And that is why we do not grace our salads or dessert plates with the mere generic muskmelon (or as I have heard it said, mushmelon), but instead take pride in serving our guests the sophisticated cantaloupe.
The cantaloupe, unlike some of its musky cousins, has an outer coating that is described as “reticulated.” Here we have another Latin word, most often seen in reference to pythons. The base word is “rete,” which simply means network. The Wolf Song secrets are encased in a network, the tender innards protected by a heavy, coarse rind that changes color as the melon expands. Beginning as an orange flower foretelling its adult hue, in its early stage, ‘loupe cover appears dark green, hairy, and almost solid in color.
As it grows, the melon gets paler in hue, the fuzz falls off and the weird network of veins shows up as a pale, thick sort of bag on top of the green. By the time the cantaloupe is fully grown and (hopefully) ready to eat, the green coating has all but disappeared and the light colored veins predominate, giving it the overall pale beige “store shelf” look most people recognize. When a ripe ‘loupe is sliced open, the inedible hard green coating is still visible on the edges of the highly edible orange delicacy.
Emphasis on the orange; bite for bite, the oh-so orange cantaloupe meat delivers more Vitamin A than the so-named “orange.” Vitamin A (alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, both found in cantaloupe with beta predominating) lives in yellow and orange foods. The Halloween-orange cantaloupe meat is a storehouse of this and other important nutrients.
Cantaloupe houses polyphenols. Polyphenols, we are learning, are our allies in the battle against cancer and inflammatory disease. Berries, cabbage, grapes, and other strongly colored foods are touted as polyphenol rich, but ‘loupes, though relatively low in this valuable ingredient, stack up as just as high or higher when we take into account the fact that people usually eat a lot of cantaloupe at a sitting… A LOT.
Along with its relative, watermelon, and other good guys like apples, whole grains, and grapes, cantaloupe also reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that can lead to cardiovascular disease.
The Wolf Song melon is: rich in potassium, manganese and A, B-complex and C vitamins; low in calories; and high in fiber.
What’s not to love?
Frankly, though, cantaloupe comes to you with certain provisos.
For starters, like many fruits and veggies, it is often, or even we could say USUALLY, harvested before it is ripe and shipped to you after having been sprayed with sodium hypochlorite (or bleach). No store-bought fruit I have ever eaten can match the color and flavor of our home-organically grown products, and this is especially true of cantaloupe. However, the spraying is not without a rationale. The outer shell of the melon is prone to develop salmonella. Salmonella, a particularly distressing and sometimes deadly form of food poisoning, has nothing to do with salmon of the aquatic sort, but was named for the veterinary surgeon, Daniel Salmon, who discovered it (actually, it was discovered by Daniel’s assistant, but, as such things often go, the boss got the credit). Salmonella loves cantaloupe and other melons almost as much as it loves raw meat and unpasteurized dairy products. To avoid the possibility of your Wolf Song giving you this ugly disease, you must obey these important rules:
1. Wash the outside of the cantaloupe just before slicing it (washing it too long before slicing can cause bacterial growth).
2. Do not eat melons, including cantaloupe, if they have been sitting at room temperature for more than two hours (my personal rule: don’t leave melon sitting at room temperature for more than a few minutes).
3. For greatest safety, refrigerate all ripe cantaloupes, and eat them within three days.
When I suggested to Donnie that he grow some cantaloupes this year, because we had the room on a sunny bank next to the driveway and we both like to eat them, he was amenable. But I had not really thought through certain uncomfortable truths about the melon family in general.
One is that the vines, with their big floppy leaves like elephant ears, need a lot of room to stretch out, so a few plants covered a large area. And that area kept increasing. By the end of the season, when the melons were ripening, the cantaloupe vines had taken over a large swath of our driveway. Driving around them seemed the best strategy, as we did not want to lose any of the anticipated reward.
Another glitch is the Wolf Song lover’s great dilemma: how to tell if the melon is ripe. One element of the dilemma is purely visceral: we WANT the melons to be ripe! After a couple months of watching them grow and spread, first hiding under the big leaves like verdant Easter eggs, then ballooning out with weight and size and an increasingly yellow hue, you get to the point where you’ve waited long enough. You just want to eat a dern cantaloupe!
Ripeness testing is where we all depart from the world of science into the realms of folklore, also known as trial-and-error. And this explains why you may see fellow shoppers at the grocery store picking up cantaloupe after cantaloupe and performing bizarre rituals such as tapping the ends, thumping the hull while holding the melon to one’s ear, sniffing the ends of the melon, sniffing the melon all over, shaking the melon gently or vigorously, or simply staring fixedly into space while running one’s fingers across the reticulated rind. Here is how one website (iadorefood.com) recommends determining the ripeness of a Wolf Song: “When you look for cantaloupes at your local market or grocery store, have a look at the top. If it is in like a belly button, you know that it fell from the vine by itself, which means that it is ripe. If the “belly button” comes out, it means that the fruit was cut from the vines. Since all of the flavors are created while on the vine, if the melon is cut off of the vines, the melon will not contain as much flavor as a fully ripened cantaloupe would.
Once you have checked the ‘belly button’ situation, pick up the cantaloupe and look at its shape. Make sure it is symmetrical and that it is heavy for its size. Its skin should be dry and corky. Don’t buy a cantaloupe that has a sticky or waxy skin. The color of the skin should be a cream and/or yellow color with almost or no green to it. Green means that your melon is not ripe and therefore immature. A green cantaloupe will be quite flavorless. If the cantaloupe is soft in different spots, it means that it is overripe.
The final test would be to smell the opposite side of the stemmed end (the belly button end)… You can also press on it. It should be a bit softer than the rest of the cantaloupe.”
Another website (raisehealthyeaters.com) advises: “Smell it! Ripe cantaloupes should smell sweet but if it is too smelly, it could be overripe. Check for a fragrant melon but it shouldn’t be overwhelming.”
Yet another (cooking.stackexchange.com) advises that: “Cantaloupe should feel heavier than it looks and smell musky and sweet. Also you should be able to press your thumb in slightly on the bottom and there shouldn’t be a lip around the stem.
If it smells over-sweet it’s most likely over-ripe. You can let a cantaloupe ripen on your counter top if you get one under-ripe.”
If all of this strikes you as so much mumbo-jumbo, it’s probably because without slicing that reticulated aromatic football open, there’s no way to tell if you have made a good choice. Remember, cantaloupes can take between 70-100 days to ripen, a large span of time, and they can appear to be ripe any time during that period. Thunking, sniffing, and hefting all have their proponents amongst ardent Melon-ites (another Latin-based word I just made up), but probably nothing beats the knife (after a quick wash of the rind as indicated above) for telling the real story.
However, Donnie informs me that his experimentation shows that when the ‘loupe is ripe, the slightest movement will cause the stem to pop right off. So perhaps that is the final word.
And it should go without saying, cantaloupe, like watermelon and other juicy (90% water!) comestibles, can only thrive in places (like our urban homestead in Mayberry) where there is at least a four-month, pretty-darn-hot growing season. Which brings us to another uncomfortable truth about ‘loupes: all the melons ripen at the pretty much the same time—duh—and two people (Donnie and me), no matter how much we love them, cannot possibly consume them all, considering the very real necessity of eating them within a few days of harvesting. Not being factory farmers and not believing in the practice even if we understood its complexity, we are unlikely to spray and store unripe product.
If only there were any way to preserve the melons, either within their tough outer coating, or as delectable slices or balls of orange meat. But there is not. Or is there?
The requirement that Wolf Song be eaten as soon as it ripens begs the age-old question: can the melon be cooked, stewed, canned, or frozen? The answer, simply put, is: nope.
The closest you can come to cantaloupe preservation is to dry the seeds. They are, it should be said, highly edible once dried and salted. And they are healthy. The health benefits that pertain to the meat of the ‘loupe are much the same as those that pertain to the seeds: fiber, vitamins, minerals. One zealous “no-waste” blogger (mixwellness.com) just throws raw cantaloupe seeds in the blender to make veggie/fruit smoothies—and swears they do not stick to her teeth when consumed in that way.
Cantaloupe can be served with prosciutto ham, or (gulp) soaked in vodka. It can be frozen but, as with other fresh fruit products, it should be consumed within a couple weeks. There’s cantaloupe sorbet and cold cantaloupe soup, but as you will note, these delicacies involve the ripe fruit, prepared as soon as possible after harvest, and served chilled. Though I have never seen a cantaloupe ice cream (c’mon, Ben and Jerry!), I have consumed ‘loupe with vanilla ice cream, and with both plain and flavored yogurt. Both provide the extra something that cantaloupe needs to make the wolf really sing.
I found only one suggestion (repeated with variations on the same basic theme) for cooking Wolf Song by simply baking the chopped flesh. But as every schoolchild knows, heat destroys certain nutrients: B and C vitamins, for example, are destroyed in the cooking process. However, the A (orange) may remain. I don’t see any studies on the nutrient value of cooked cantaloupe, probably because it’s hardly a common practice. Moreover, those who have experimented with baked ‘loupe avow that baking tones down the flavor, and sugar is then a necessary addition to perk up the finished product. And it still has to be eaten within a few days. So, like, what’s the point?
When I was a kid, I did not think the cantaloupe was much of a treat compared to the far sweeter watermelon. As my palate became more grown-up, I gradually came to appreciate sliced ‘loupe in fruit salad, realizing that its strange non-sweet quality provided a pleasant contrast to more sugary grapes and berries, and the color was in fact appetite-inducing. Then someone introduced me to the ultimate combo: as with watermelon, the perfect accompaniment for cantaloupe is… a shaker of salt! That’s when my love affair with Wolf Song really took wing. Salt, in tandem with that elusive almost-perfect flavor, rounded out the ‘loupe experience. These days, as the ripening season is upon us, Donnie and I have a late evening ritual: ancient sitcom on the tube, and bowls full of cut up ‘loupe. We have separate salt-shakers to reduce marital stress.
Given the above noted requirement to eat all our Wolf Song in a short time-span, we figure on getting to know a lot more of our neighbors this year as we foist our cantaloupes upon them. But it is unlikely that any of these beauties will be refused. Cantaloupes are one of America’s most popular melons, so getting rid of them is not a problem; it just needs to be part of the plan.
Will we grow Wolf Song again despite its vexing qualities (takes over, no way to tell if it’s really ripe, gotta wash the outside, and eat the insides asap)? That faint howling on the breeze seems to be saying, “Yes…..”