Saturday, September 27, 2014

For the Love of Melons


It's Halloween and, once again, pumpkins throughout the land are wondering how they got involved with a pagan Celtic holiday devoted to such un-pumpkinlike things as witches, goblins and training children how to beg food. It's an odd fate for one of Florida’s most important native foods. But if you stand waaay back, squint your eyes and look at it from the corner of your eyes, Halloween starts to look like a time when our culture actually reveres pumpkins.
Of course, appearances are often deceiving. While the pre-season frenzy of pumpkin-buying seems promising, it falls apart when the big day arrives and we find that, rather than being celebrated, the pumpkins are carved into likenesses of scary, dentally-challenged human heads.
  If you ever need reminding of how different our culture is from the original Floridians, take a moment to consider the name, "Chassahowitzka." The fact that Seminoles gave this beautiful waterway a name that means something like “place of hanging pumpkins” reveals more than a simple appreciation for this large fruit, it speaks to a respect for nature. In contrast, most modern Floridians consider it the height of humor to bash pumpkins or to see how far they can toss them.
The sport called “Pumpkin chunkin” evolved, from what I imagine began as a neighborly feud over who had the more attractive wife or car or children or dog or lawn or pumpkin, into a serious competition in which Chunkers (I have no clue what they are actually called) use catapults, trebuchets, ballistas, air-cannons and various other devices to hurl their prized fruit. Hard-core chunkers selectively breed and grow chunkin pumpkins for maximum aerodynamics. They also breed them for toughness so they won’t break on impact. (I guess it’s easier to work with experienced pumpkins than to train new pumpkins for every chunk-meet).
But pumpkins can take heart in knowing that we humans find bashing other large fruits almost as hilarious. For comedian Gallagher, bashing juicy produce--especially watermelons--is not just gag to warm up his audience before the main act; it is the act. In fact, his jokes are basically just time-fillers while he places his next juicy victim on the smashing block. Dozens of fruit are smashed in a typical show and, with every smash, people nearly pee themselves with a toddler's glee. It was one of the most successful comedy acts of the 1980’s.
Some people give melons the respect they deserve. In fact it was another humorist, Mark Twain, who penned one of the most reverent passages ever written about watermelons. "The true southern watermelon is a boon apart and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. (Mark Twain. “Puddn’ Head Wilson”). The rest is all seed spitting, face plunging and smashing in one form or another.
I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching a couple of documentaries about two very different topics. For all their differences, there was one thing they had in common and it revealed some valuable (and uncomfortable) truths about our culture. The first is that Gallagher is apparently a genius who has found our society's G-spot and he uses this knowledge to seduce a huge segment of our society. The second revelation is that the love of abusing melons goes far deeper in our culture than the raincoat-clad minions huddled before Gallagher's dripping pulpit; it goes all the way to the hallowed halls of academia. 
The first program was about weapons of the Middle Ages. For nearly an hour (actually about seven minutes after commercials), the host introduced a collection of devices that showed the creative lengths people will go to kill each other. Each weapon was presented with a well-honed formula, beginning with the weapon’s history. For most, their origins could be traced back to a wooden stick (which was presumably picked up by the first ape to stand upright, who then swung it at the second standing ape (and, presumably, any nearby fruit).
The host then brought in an expert who described the weapon's clever construction. When he finished, the two men took it to a field and fired it at a melon. To avoid looking like a couple of mischievous school brats, they explained that melons are used because they have the same firmness as a human skull. But, despite the somber delivery of historical facts, ballistics and any other adult-sounding tidbits they could conjure, every segment ended with the men giggling like a couple of spider-bearing 5th graders chasing girls on the playground.
The second show, “How the Universe was Made,” began with some clips highlighting the topics the show would cover. I was relieved to be back in the company of adults. But, no sooner had the gray-haired astronomers started talking about asteroids, than I detected a worrisome twinkle in their eyes. Every fiber in my melon-lovin’ body tightened. Quicker than I could screech, “where’s the remote!” one of the astronomers was hoisting a melon onto a stand. I knew what was coming and yet (as the producers so cleverly knew) I couldn’t look away. After carefully placing an explosive charge inside the melon, the camera zoomed-in on the two wide-eyed researchers huddled in the distance (different playground, same school boys). The camera panned back to the ill-fated melon, stoically awaiting its fate. After some hurried mumbling—something about how the earth’s firmness is amazingly comparable to a melon—they pushed a button and splat, the Gulf of Mexico was born.
We have to wonder what our ancestors would have thought of our treatment of a fruit that has served us for nearly 5,000 years; and not only as food. In Northern Europe, melons were powerful status symbols. Cucumbers had their day as well. At various times they were associated with sex and sexuality, fertility, vitality, moisture, abundance, opulence, luxury, gluttony, creative power, rapid growth and even death. In a round-about way, some of these associations persist in the use of cucumbers in cosmetics.
Florida’s native people also made good use of the cucurbits, growing gourds (for dippers) and squashes; possibly as early as the Late Archaic Period, around 500 B.C. Somewhere along the way they also started cultivating pumpkins. But they were nothing like the orange beasts that will be adorning our doorsteps this weekend. Like so much of those early cultures, little is known about how they used cucurbits for food or medicine. More is known about the Seminoles who replaced them.
According to the late Dr. Julia Morton, Florida’s first-lady of plant lore, Chassahowitzka’s namesake “hanging pumpkins” were actually the small (3 – 4 pound), tan squashes known as “Seminole Pumpkins.” Weighing between 3 – 4 pounds, these mottled, tan-colored squashes are actually more closely related to butternut squash than the large squashes we call pumpkins. While rare, these long, trailing vines can still be found in Florida’s wilder corners. A friend found some growing near St. Johns River several years ago, weaving through tree branches well off the ground. The Seminoles made good use of their vining habit by planting them next to oak trees—ideally dead ones that would allow them more sun.  
While I never thought I’d hear myself wax sentimental about pumpkins and melons, I must admit I’m troubled by the implications of how we treat these important fruits. If we don’t respect gifts of nature that have sustained us for thousands of years, less “useful” species don’t stand a chance. It makes me worry about the fate of our planet. To demonstrate, I’ll place this melon on this stump…