How cantaloupe got its name—actually, how it got several names—is a fascinating story. Southern belle and food writer Nancie McDermott explains.
Cantaloupe. Muskmelon. Charentais. Tuscan melon. Rock melon. These subtle variations on a theme all refer to that hauntingly familiar summer melon with the recognizable netted rind and intoxicatingly fragrant flesh. But it’s not just the melon that captivates us. How the cantaloupe got its name is actually quite the interesting story. Southern belle and food writer Nancie McDermott explains in detail in the following excerpt from her latest book, Fruit: A Savor The South Cookbook. So slice some melon and drape it with prosciutto or nibble it out of hand while taking a read.—Renee Schettler Rossi
Driving along a winding Piedmont North Carolina two-lane blacktop sometime in the early 1980s, I saw a large, hand-lettered cardboard sign nailed to a post by the side of the road. Its message, “Western Lopes,” made me want to pull over at once, but the pickup truck full of summer fruit had moved on. The abbreviation tickled me, then and now: “’lopes.” Spelled variously as “canteloupe,” “cantaloupe,” and “cantalope,” the one true rendering of the name for this summertime delight remains unsettled. The simplicity of the nickname “lopes” cuts through to the subject at hand: a plain, distinctive melon that graces southern plates as the summer heat and humidity reach their peak. Back when eating off the big messy green rind and spitting out the seeds mattered more than flavor, watermelon had my heart; today I am simultaneously a cantaloupe devotee.
Make that a “muskmelon maven,” a “rock melon recruit,” or perhaps a “Persian melon person,” since each of these names belongs to this particular orange-hued, textured-skinned melon, while “cantaloupe,” in its various spellings, properly and officially does not. But the mistake was made long ago, a century at least, and with our nationwide affection for these small, round melons, enclosed in a sturdy rind adorned with the distinctive, curling grey-green texture called netting, we’ve claimed the name for good. In the American South, cantaloupes are what they are, and from July through early September, the sultry-hot South loves her “’lopes.”
Native to Iran and traced back to the gardens and tables of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, Cucumis melo belongs to the gourd family, and is closely kin to cucumbers and winter melons. Whereas tomatoes, which are technically fruits, are more at home among vegetables, cantaloupes are vegetables that are more at home among fruits. This species of sweet, plump melons found fame and favor in Iran and Armenia around 3000 BCE and made its way throughout Asia and Africa, to Greece and Egypt, and to Rome by the first century of the Common Era.
Here is where the mistaken identity occurred: A smooth-skinned, paler-fleshed variety of Cucumis melo found favor in papal gardens near the Italian city of Cantalupo around the sixteenth century, earning it the varietal name C. melo var. cantalupo. These true cantaloupes, known as charentais and cavaiilon melons, remain hot-weather stars in France and Spain to this day, but they never grew well here in the United States. In contrast, their muskmelon cousin, Cucumis melo var. reticulatus, grew wonderfully across the pond, especially in the South, and while it was misnamed coming in, it quickly won favor and fame and, for some growers, fortune as well.
Melons receive notice in southern historical accounts of culinary pleasures from colonial times forward, but we can thank the W. Atlee Burpee Company for bringing the particular ’lopes we love to the marketplace in 1881. That year, the “Netted Gem” showed up in their catalogs and found favor around the country, particularly in the South, where heat, sunshine, and sandy soil awaited these summertime beauties.
Traditionally, southerners enjoyed cantaloupes for their own sake, as a sweet, juicy, cool, and refreshing pleasure during the hot and sultry season when they ripen in the heat. Some people, particularly those with a garden’s abundance beyond what a family could polish off on its own, turned cantaloupe into jam, preserves, and pickles. But for old-timers, cantaloupes were enough. With twenty-first-century access to prosciutto for wrapping around a ripe crescent of C. melo var. reticulatus, a blender capable of making smoothies, and a freezer to transform it into sorbet, the South has a whole new reason to love the ’lope.