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Jul 31, 2009 09:29AM

A little slice of Muscatine: Melons grown and ripened in Iowa are in season


By Brandy Welvaert
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McClatchy Newspapers
This is the time of year for muskmelons grown in Muscatine, Iowa.

Bite into the perfumed flesh of a Muscatine-grown muskmelons, which now is in season, and instantly you will understand why these fruits are a summertime tradition here. What you might not care to consider, as heavenly melon juices get your chin all sticky, is the possible demise of this vine-ripened wonder. But it's true: The Muscatine melon could disappear.

"That's a very real concern with the Muscatine melon, and just in general with fruit and vegetable growers in Iowa," says Susan Futrell of Iowa City, who authored a report in 2004 about Muscatine melons for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames.

Back in 1921, melons covered 2,500 acres in Muscatine County. By 2002, the county grew melons on just 107 acres. That's about 4 percent of the number of acres used 80 years before.

The decline of the Muscatine melon in many ways mirrors the decline of traditional agriculture across the United States, according to the report, "Muscatine Melon: A Case Study of a Place-Based Food in Iowa." In general, diverse fruit and vegetable production has given way to monoculture farming -- here the crops usually are corn and soybeans. Machinery largely has replaced hard-to-find hand laborers.

But all is not lost.

At this time of year, it's still tough to wend your way through any farmers' market -- or even a chain grocer's local outpost -- and not run into a display of Muscatine melons.

Tim Duffy, produce manager at Hy-Vee in Milan, Ill., has been in the produce business for 40 years. He tells customers to eat -- or slice and refrigerate -- Muscatine muskmelons soon after buying, which is sound advice for most locally grown produce that's harvested when ripe.

"My advice is that when they're in, they're ripe and ready to go. They will not hold up for very long. Get them processed and in the refrigerator," Duffy says.

Muscatine melons are not meant to be picked green, bump along Interstates inside semi-trailers, or hang out in cold warehouses.

"These melons differ from their cantaloupe, honeydew and Crenshaw cousins in that they are characterized by pronounced ridges; deep orange color; and juicy, fragrant flesh. They tend to have softer flesh, ripen best on the vine, and usually are marketed close to where they are grown," says the Leopold report.

And home is Muscatine County, the perfect place for growing melons because of its sandy, well-drained soil, says Futrell. The soil also retains the heat of the sun, keeping the fruits warm while they ripen to perfection on the vine.

She defines a Muscatine melon as one that's grown in the county, but she's quick to point out that some people would say that a true Muscatine melon grows only on Muscatine Island, south of Muscatine proper, near Fruitland and Conesville, Iowa.

Futrell is a freelance writer who says she jumped at the idea to research Muscatine melons because she wants to encourage people to explore local foods -- and because of her love of the fruits.

"I grew up in Iowa, and so I grew up eating Muscatine melons when they were in season," she says. "In particular, we would visit my grandparents living in southern Iowa, and we would kind of wait for them to show up on street corners. I have had a memory and a love of these melons to begin with."

If you love them, too, now's the time to spring into action.

From now through mid-September -- some growers say into October -- you can get Muscatine melons at grocery stores and farmers' markets.

Or you can take an old-fashioned road trip to Muscatine and select a melon from a roadside stand like many people used to do. From the Quad-Cities, Muscatine is about a 45-minute drive.

"Thirty, forty years ago, it used to be a pilgrimage to Muscatine," says John Kiwala, who grows 20 acres of melons there.

He and his wife, Holly, grow cantaloupe, canary melons, honeydew, yellow and red watermelons, and what he calls "the classic Muscatine watermelons: `Crimson' and `Sangria.'"

His family's business, Hoopes' Melon Shed, is on state Highway 61 south outside Maquoketa heading toward Burlington.

William Henry Hoopes, an ancestor of the Kiwalas, started his fruit and vegetable farm in 1874 on Muscatine Island and was the first to ship his melons to bigger cities for sale; that's how Muscatine melons gained their celebrity.

Today, as Futrell says, "Muscatine melons are famous."

If you want to make sure they stay famous, ask for them by name at the grocery store and the farmers' market, she advises.

"Any time consumers ask for something, the seller will want to make them happy."

How to eat a Muscatine melon

-- From John Kiwala, melon grower, Muscatine, Ill.: Slice and eat, no extras required. "I eat them every day," Kiwala says.

-- From Susan Futrell, food researcher, Iowa City: "Cut a ripe melon into bite-size chunks. Add chopped fresh mint or basil leaves. Squeeze juice from fresh lime, enough to coat the chunks; add a pinch of salt. Chill if you are not eating/serving right away, then bring to room temperature for the best flavor. A little bit of salt really brings out the flavor in fresh, ripe melon!"

-- From Rich Pirog, a farm researcher, Ames: "I usually eat them as is. They are so delicious. I also have had them with some thinly sliced prosciutto (Italian ham) and some blue cheese crumbles (think Amana cheese)."

-- From Tim Duffy, produce manager at Hy-Vee in Milan, Ill.: "I just like to cut them up in 1-inch cubes and eat them with a fork."

Melon-ology

Cucumis melo, or muskmelon, include cantaloupe, casaba, Crenshaw, honeydew and Persian melons. Often, the words "cantaloupe" and "muskmelon" are used interchangeably to describe oval, heavily netted melons with sweet, orange flesh.

True cantaloupe, which usually are grown in Europe and the Middle East, have smooth skin and are smaller and harder.

Muskmelon is not named for Muscatine, but for its musky fragrance.

Source: "Muscatine Melon: A Case Study of a Place-Based Food in Iowa," online at www.leopold.iastate.edu/research/grants/files/2004-MSP9_melon.pdf




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