Balkanization at the Table

In my family, geography affected everything, down to the way we ate fruit. That’s why, when I was a child and I sat down to a meal at a cousin’s house, if there was melon for an appetizer or dessert, I had to remember where the parents were from to know which utensils to use. If it was a family on my father’s side, (where the adults had names like Boomie, Bentzie, Yootzie and Lootzie)we ate melon by Hungarian rules, which meant melon was eaten with a knife and fork. You speared the melon with a fork to hold it still, made a series of vertical cuts in the melon wedge with a knife, and then cut along the bottom of the wedge to free the resulting melon chunks. If the family was on my mother’s side (Hymie, Abie, Chaya and Frieda), then we ate melon by Russian rules, which go like this: Surreptitiously holding the melon with thumb and forefinger while pretending to hold the plate steady with your left hand, you use a spoon to scoop up the melon pulp.

Once, I sat down to lunch at a friend’s house whose parents were American and I was presented with a wedge of melon and NO UTENSILS! This was a crisis I could not solve until I saw my friend actually pick up the melon with her fingers. On both sides of the Russian-Hungarian divide (that is, my mother’s and father’s side of the family) touching melon rinds was a privilege reserved for adult women, who could nibble at the rinds on the sly while clearing the table. Children were not allowed to chew on the ‘green part,’ it was a sure ticket to the emergency room.

Either my aunts never knew how to choose a ripe melon, or they couldn’t find a ripe melon in New York in the 60’s, but there was almost no mess involved in eating melons in those days. What we were served held together beautifully, and gave up no juices when cut. We could saw and hack for half an hour with no messy consequences. Or flavor. My cousins and I ate melon that was the approximate texture and flavor of floral arranging foam.

Nowadays, especially where I live in California, the fruit is riper, or maybe I am a better judge of ripeness than my European-trained aunts were. It was as an adult I first realized that Honeydew, Persian, and Cantaloupe melons differ in taste as well as rind texture and color. But soft, smooth, flavorful, flesh comes at a price. Mess. Careless eating of a ripe melon leads to spots on the table, juice on your clothes, and sticky hands. You can hack and saw at a Styrofoam cantaloupe slice for hours, and get away with it, but improper technique really makes a difference with a ripe melon, juice gets everywhere. So, in my house, I’ll cut up a melon when I bring it home and keep the chunks in a big bowl in the fridge. Pre-cut fruit removes the question of which national protocol to follow when eating melon. It also keeps the mess contained on the counter and keeps it out of the dining room. Or maybe this is just a melon eating method for mongrels who have no sense of their mother country. Did I mention my husband was Polish? Another Eastern European state heard from.

Moosewood cookbook’s instructions on how to cut up a melon are as follows: Work on a grooved cutting board to catch juices. 1. Using a sharp knife, slice off top and bottom of melon so that it sits flat on work surface. 2. Following the shape of the melon, slice off peel in strips from top to bottom. 3. Halve peeled melon lengthwise, and scrape out seeds with a spoon before slicing. My additional advice is to remember that you should start with a clean sink and counter, because naked melons are slippery, and you don’t them to touch anything dirty if they get away from you.

About Onecakebaker

Author of a memoir called The Girl On the Wall, and working on a novel. Former Synagogue president, gardener, empty nester. Raising bees.
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