Freelance writer on the rise and fall of the legendary Montreal melon
The price for a single slice of this fruit once rivaled an expensive cut of steak at a nice restaurant.
And the queen of England received one each year — carefully wrapped in a wooden basket to protect the precious cargo, which could grow up to 40 pounds.
We're talking about the Montreal melon. A delicacy grown north of the border around the turn of the 20th century, it has since largely disappeared from gardens and farms.
So writes freelance journalist Joel Balsam in his recent piece for Atlas Obscura titled “What Happened to Montreal’s Legendary Melon?”
VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with Balsam, who’s based in Montreal, to talk about so-called Champagne of melons — and how its legacy lives on today. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Grace Benninghoff: Walk me through the history of the Montreal melon. How did it become so well known and revered? Slices of melon selling for the price of steak is pretty hard to believe.
Joel Balsam: Yeah, when I first heard about it I was super excited about the story. I thought it was incredible. And that's just the amazing part of it. So you could go into a fancy white tablecloth restaurant in Manhattan at the turn of the century, 1900, and you'd order a slice of melon after maybe your steak. And the melon, just the one slice, is the same price as the steak. So it was about $1, or like $30 in today's currency.
Wow, that's kind of crazy.
Yeah, it was a lot. So at the time, it was just really revered. There was this big seed catalog. And they really said this was the best melon. It has a nutmeg taste. It was a green flesh instead of the orange that we usually see today. And they were huge — really big. They're 30 pounds or something like that. But they were just absolutely massive. And they got really popular. But then yeah, in 1950, they disappeared.
So let's back up. How did you come across the story of the Montreal melon?
Actually my professor at Concordia University here in Montreal, I ended up featuring him in my story. And he was the first person at the Montreal Gazette to write about the Montreal melon. And he was walking around in his neighborhood, and he saw that it's called Old Orchard. And he was like, "Why is that? Why is it called Old Orchard? I'm in a city." And he's in the Notre Dame de Grâce area. And they used to just be fields, farmer fields.
And because Montreal had four horse race tracks, they had a lot of horse manure. And that was really good for growing big fruit like the Montreal melon. So that's how he learned about it. And then he wrote about it in the Gazette. And there's kind of a movement to bring it back. But I learned about it much later, just about five years ago.
We talked about how this melon became really revered. It was a delicacy. It was the best melon in all these seed catalogs. And then you said in the 1950s, it disappeared. So what happened there?
It disappeared because of the lack of the horse tracks. I mean, my professor was saying he even used to get his milk delivered by horse. Anyway, we're obviously not doing that anymore. The city expanded. And there's just no room for the melon. And just because of the slopes of [Notre Dame de Grâce] it caught the sun in the right way, because of the manure, it was really good to grow. And then it just went out of fashion after it wasn't growing in that spot. But later on, especially after the story, people tried to bring it back.
After the story that he wrote?
Yeah, that's right. So after the story he wrote in the 1990s, a colleague of his managed to track down some seeds in Iowa. And then he gave them to this organic farmer here, Ken Taylor, a really passionate hobbyist farmer. And he managed to grow them. And other people were growing them around the city as well. But it was really, really hard.
What makes these melons so difficult to grow?
Ken Taylor was saying that you have to kind of raise them up in the sky, and they have to grow at a different time. And if it's a wet year, or a hot year, you could lose them if you get this the fungus on them. And he tried for several years — and sometimes he'd get it — but he ended up giving up and kind of being like, "We can't eat everything. You know, we can't eat thoughts and memories." I thought that was really funny. But yeah, he essentially wants to grow things that work in our climate. And he believes we can grow things in Montreal, and in Vermont, that maybe we expect to get in in Asia or something. But that one was just too hard to grow here.
But actually, since I wrote the story, I heard of some friends in Wakefield, and they have some seeds. And they're trying to grow it as kind of a challenge. So if you're a hobby farmer, there might be a way to find it.
I know we're just scratching the surface of this. But in the story, you obviously wrote about the legacy of the Montreal melon and how that legacy is, in some ways, carried on by the Oka melon, which is grown by monks outside of Montreal. Could you just walk me through how that came to be?
In 2014, I believe it was an organic seed farmer, he went and found in a U.S. catalog these Oka melon seeds. And because he lives outside of Montreal, and Oka is also outside of Montreal, he was like, "Oh, wow, I know about Montreal melon; I didn't know about the Oka melon."
And the monks had since downsized to a smaller abbey and they moved right next to him. So he literally went up to them and said, "Hey, do you know about the Oka melon, which is also part of your history?" Because then Oka had an agricultural school that has since turned into a university. But it was where they found things like Oka cheese, which is still around, or the Chantecler chicken, which is a more hardy chicken.
So he gave the seeds to the monks. And they were like, "Wow, we've forgotten about this collectively." So they started growing it in their fields. And yeah, that caught on as well. And you can buy boxes of heirloom seeds to try in your own garden.
At the end of your piece, you explore this question of whether it's worth growing these finicky heirloom fruits. And one of your sources described the joy of telling the Montreal melon story. Do you share that perspective that we talked about earlier of sometimes it's just 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'm always telling people this story that I'm telling you now, so I think it's great. Is it necessarily worth it to grow? I mean, it'd be nice. I would love to try a Montreal melon.
I did try the Oka melon and it was it was OK. It was fine. It didn't blow me away. But it would be amazing to try it. And they could just be fun. You know, there's a problem with huge farms and bananas all being the kind of the same. It's nice to have variety. And it would be great to have a variety that is from Montreal, the city that I live in.