Freelance writer on the rise and fall of Montreal’s legendary melon
The price of a single slice of this fruit once rivaled an expensive cut of steak at a fine restaurant.
And the Queen of England received one every year – carefully packed in a wooden basket to protect the precious cargo, which could weigh up to 40 pounds.
We are talking about the Montreal melon. A delicacy grown north of the border at the turn of the 20th century, it has since largely disappeared from gardens and farms.
So writes freelance journalist Joel Balsam in his recent article for Atlas Obscura titled “What happened to Montreal’s legendary melon?”
VPR’s Grace Benninghoff sat down with Montreal-based Balsam to talk about the so-called Melon Champagne – and how its legacy lives on today. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Grace Benninghoff: Tell me the story of the Montreal melon. How did he become so well known and revered? Slices of melon sold for the price of a steak are quite hard to believe.
Joel Balsam: Yeah, when I first heard about it, I was super excited about the story. I thought it was amazing. And that’s just the amazing part of it. So you could walk into a posh white-tablecloth restaurant in turn-of-the-century Manhattan in 1900 and order a slice of melon after maybe your steak. And the melon, just a slice, is the same price as the steak. So it was about $1, or about $30 in today’s currency.
Wow, that’s kinda crazy.
Yes, it was a lot. So at the time, it was just very revered. There was this big catalog of seeds. And they really said it was the best melon. It tastes like nutmeg. It was green flesh instead of the orange we usually see today. And they were huge – really big. They weigh 30 pounds or something like that. But they were just absolutely huge. And they have become very popular. But then yes, in 1950 they disappeared.
So let’s go back. How did you discover the history of the Montreal melon?
In fact, my professor at Concordia University here in Montreal, I ended up featuring him in my story. And he was the first person Montreal Gazette write about the Montreal melon. And he was walking around his neighborhood, and he saw it was called Old Orchard. And he was like, “Why is that? Why is it called Old Orchard? I’m in a city.” And it is in the district of Notre Dame de Grace. And they were just fields, farmers’ fields.
And because Montreal had four racetracks, there was a lot of horse manure. And it was really good for growing big fruits like the Montreal melon. That’s how he learned it. And then he wrote about it in the Gazette. And there is some kind of movement to bring it back. But I learned that much later, barely five years ago.
We talked about how this melon has become truly revered. It was a delight. It was the best melon in all those seed catalogs. And then you said in the 1950s, he disappeared. So what happened there?
It disappeared for lack of equestrian trails. I mean, my teacher said he even used to have his milk delivered on horseback. Anyway, we obviously don’t do that anymore. The city is growing. And there’s just no room for the melon. And just because of the slopes of [Notre Dame de Grâce] it caught the sun the right way, because of the manure, it was really good to push. And then it just went out of style after it didn’t grow there. But later, especially after the story, people tried to bring her back.
After the story he wrote?
Yes, it’s true. So, after the story he wrote in the 1990s, one of his colleagues managed to find seeds in Iowa. And then he gave them to this organic farmer here, Ken Taylor, a really passionate hobby farmer. And he managed to grow them. And other people also cultivated them in the city. But it was really very hard.
What makes these melons so difficult to grow?
Ken Taylor said they had to be lifted up into the sky somehow, and they had to grow up at a different time. And if it’s a wet year or a hot year, you could lose them if you have that fungus on them. And he tried for several years – and sometimes he succeeded – but eventually he gave up and kind of said to himself, “We can’t eat everything. You know, we can’t eat the thoughts and the memories.” I thought that was really funny. But yeah, he basically wants to grow things that work in our climate. And he believes that we can grow things in Montreal and Vermont, which we hope to maybe get in Asia or something like that. But that one was just too difficult to farm here.
But actually, since I wrote the story, I’ve heard from friends in Wakefield, and they have seeds. And they try to develop it as a kind of challenge. So if you’re a hobby farmer, there might be a way to find it.
I know we are only scratching the surface. But in the story, you obviously wrote about the legacy of the Montreal melon and how that legacy is, in a way, carried on by the Oka melon, which is grown by monks outside of Montreal. . Could you just explain to me how it happened?
In 2014, I think it was an organic seed company, he went to find these Oka melon seeds in an American catalog. And because he lives outside of Montreal, and Oka is also outside of Montreal, he thought, “Oh, wow, I know the Montreal melon, I didn’t know the melon from Oka.
And the monks had since downsized to a smaller abbey and they moved right next to it. So he literally approached them and said, “Hey, do you know the Oka melon, which is also part of your story?” Because then Oka had an agricultural school which has since turned into a university. But that’s where they found things like Oka cheese, which is still around, or Chantecler chicken, which is a more rustic chicken.
So he gave the seeds to the monks. And they were like, “Wow, we collectively forgot about that.” So they started growing it in their fields. And yes, it also spread. And you can buy boxes of heirloom seeds to try in your own garden.
At the end of your article, you explore this question of whether it is worth growing these finicky heirloom fruits. And one of your sources described the joy of telling the story of the Montreal melon. Do you share that perspective we talked about earlier that sometimes it’s better to grow something that grows well? What are your thoughts?
Personally, I love this story. It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written. And I love talking about it in my personal life. I always tell people this story that I’m telling you now, so I think it’s great. Is it worth growing up? I mean, that would be nice. I would love to try a Montreal melon.
I tried the Oka melon and it was ok. It was good. It didn’t blow me away. But it would be amazing to try it. And they might just be fun. You know, there’s a problem with big farms and bananas that are all the same. It’s good to have variety. And it would be great to have a variety that comes from Montreal, the city where I live.
Do you have questions, comments or advice? Send us a message or contact Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.