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The Magical Melon Returns

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first time I ever ate a cantaloupe was at a Bob’s Big Boy, where my mother took us to eat an American breakfast.

Having just arrived from Japan, I didn’t know what to order. Then I saw the reflection of halved cantaloupes and grapefruit on the mirror by the counter. The grapefruit was decorated with pretty red cherries, but what appealed to me was the cantaloupe.

The waitress served it with a large wedge of lemon and a big spoon. I squeezed the lemon over the orange flesh and scooped up mouthful after mouthful until nothing was left but the green rind.

Being able to splurge on half of a juicy melon was a good enough reason to start a new life in America. In Japan, melons are raised in hothouses and command prices that would shock most Americans--$100 and up. Often sold in velvet-lined wooden boxes, Japanese melons are usually only served in fancy restaurants or presented as a gift for someone who is in the hospital--and only when the person is really sick.

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One summer, I went back to Japan to visit my great-aunt, who was in the hospital with an illness serious enough to make someone go out and buy her a melon. At the entrance to her ward was a fancy boxed melon sitting on a table. It had a cork-like white net over its spotless olive skin and exuded a sweet fragrance. We admired the melon as if it were the queen’s crown jewels.

I wanted to eat it of course, but my great-aunt had another idea. “Will you take this melon to your grandmother in Kamakura?” she asked.

Grandmother was my aunt’s older sister, who was nearly 90. She was too old to visit her 88-year-old sister at the hospital, though otherwise in good health.

“But this melon is yours,” I said.

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My great-aunt clutched my hand and shook her head: “Your grandmother will appreciate it more.”

There was no sense in arguing with my sick great-aunt. I told her I would be happy to deliver the melon to my grandmother. Carefully, I put the box of melon in a paper bag. I was surprised how heavy it was.

“That’s the sign of a good melon,” my great-aunt said, smiling.

When I was a girl, I used to do sleepovers at her house. She didn’t have any daughters of her own, and the sleepovers were my only chance to get away from my brothers and sisters, and to be treated like a princess. She would always dress me up in a cotton kimono, and we would slurp noodles. The hospital visit was the last time I would see my great-aunt.

The train to Kamakura was completely packed with tourists going to the beach or to see Daibutsu--the Great Buddha in the ancient town. There was no place for me to sit down, but I spotted an empty place on the shelf where I could rest the heavy melon. I kept an eye on it so it wouldn’t roll off or fall on someone’s head. I read the paper, watched the rooftops of houses and temples and listened to children sing familiar nursery songs. Halfway through the trip, I found an empty seat. I sat down and left the melon on the rack where it seemed safe.

I didn’t realize that I had dozed off until I heard the station announcement: “Kamakura! Kamakura!” The final bell was ringing. Quickly, I gathered my belongings and slipped through the door just before it slammed shut. I got on the bus to Daibutsu, where my grandmother lived.

It wasn’t until the bus left the station that I knew something was missing. I had forgotten the melon on the train. I immediately got off the bus to call the stationmaster. Standing in a hot telephone booth, steaming, I described the bag, the melon and the approximate location where I left it.

“I am writing all this down,” said the stationmaster, trying to ease my stress. He said he would alert the ticket operator on the train, but could not promise me anything. People forgot things all the time, he told me. Lost items ended up in the lost and found in Yokosuka or Tokyo, but if it was food, it was usually thrown out or given away.

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The thought of going to my grandmother’s house without the melon made me sick. Sure enough, when I got there that was the first thing she asked me about. Her body was getting old but her memory was sharp as a needle, especially when it came to food. All I could do was bow in shame and tell her the truth.

Grandmother turned pale. This was the melon that her dying sister had given her. It was a very expensive melon. It was a rare gift that could not be wasted. If my great-aunt were to find out, it would make her sad, maybe send her to her grave sooner than anticipated, and surely my grandmother would follow her.

Grandmother straightened her back and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “We must find the melon,” she said firmly.

I picked up the phone and called the stationmaster again. “Any news about the melon?” I asked him.

“Well, I have talked to the ticket operator on the train heading to Yokosuka, but so far no luck.”

Grandmother made some green tea and we waited quietly by the phone. I wondered if anybody had stolen the melon. I imagined the melon rolling up and down the aisle like a pachinko ball, trying to find a safe corner before some kid could kick it.

Half an hour later, the stationmaster called back with good news: “The ticket operator found a bag containing a melon that matches your description,” he said. “When he reaches Yokosuka, he will put it on the next train to Tokyo.” He asked me to come to the train station to identify the melon.

“God has answered our prayers,” grandmother exclaimed. I told her to get some rest while I went to collect the melon.

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The stationmaster invited me into his office. While filling out the lost and found document, his phone rang. It was the driver of the train confirming that the melon had made a safe transfer. I was so excited about the prospective reunion that my hands were shaking.

The stationmaster told me about the things that people forgot on the trains: dentures, glasses, urns containing human ashes, umbrellas--thousands of them, wallets full of money, bento boxes, pet insects, even goldfish. He said there was a warehouse full of things that they needed to get rid of at the end of each year.

Fifteen minutes went by and finally we heard the whistle of the train. When it pulled into the station, I saw the driver sticking his head out of the window. He was holding my bag.

“That’s it,” I shouted and jumped up. I was so elated I almost hugged the stationmaster, but I restrained myself. We don’t hug strangers in Japan. Instead, I bowed deeply in appreciation.

Melon in Lime and Honey

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 15 minutes plus 1 hour chilling

This is an easy melon salad.

1/2 honeydew

1/2 Sharlyn, Casaba or cantaloupe

1 lime

1/4 cup lavender, orange or any mild honey

Mint sprigs, for garnish

Cut the flesh of the melons into 1-inch slices, or, if you have a melon baller, cut them into melon balls.

Peel the lime with a sharp knife or vegetable peeler and cut the zest in thin slices. Add the sliced zest to the melon. Squeeze the juice of the lime over the melon.

In a small saucepan, heat the honey over low heat just enough to liquefy, about 1 minute, stirring. Add the honey to the melon mixture and toss gently. Let the mixture sit for at least 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Serve in small glass bowls. Garnish with sprigs of mint.

4 servings. Each serving: 230 calories; 33 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 47 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 3.45 grams fiber.

Melon With Yogurt Cream

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes plus 2 hours chilling

This is a light yogurt pudding that goes well with melons and other summer fruit.

1 (1/4-ounce) envelope unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup water

1 cup plain yogurt

2/3 cup sugar

1 cup whipping cream

1/2 cantaloupe

1/4 cup blueberries or raspberries

Mint sprigs, for garnish

Have a large bowl of ice water ready.

Combine the gelatin and water until blended. Let sit until the gelatin has softened, about 5 minutes.

Pour the yogurt in the top of a double boiler set over, but not touching, simmering water. Using a whisk, add the sugar to the yogurt and stir until well mixed. The mixture should be hot but not boiling. Add the softened gelatin and continue stirring with the whisk to blend well, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Set the saucepan in the bowl of ice water and stir until cool.

Beat the cream only until it holds soft peaks, about 4 minutes. If it is too stiff, it will turn into butter, so don’t overbeat. Gently fold the whipped cream into the yogurt mixture. Spoon into a mold or bowl and refrigerate long enough to set up and thicken, about 2 hours.

An hour before serving, cut the flesh of the melon into 1-inch slices, or, if you have a melon baller, make melon balls.

Serve the yogurt cream on a flat plate. Decorate the edges with melon balls and berries. Garnish the middle with a sprig of mint and you will have a dessert that looks like a jewel.

6 servings. Each serving: 207 calories; 35 mg sodium; 32 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.62 gram fiber.

Melon and Peach Soup

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes

This is a refreshing, somewhat thick dessert soup to end a summer meal.

1 (3 1/2-pound) cantaloupe

3 peaches, divided

1 vanilla bean

2 tablespoons sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup raspberries, blueberries or fresh currants

Mint sprigs

Cut the cantaloupe in half and discard the seeds. Using a melon baller, make melon balls with most of the flesh. You will have about 4 cups of melon balls. Set these aside to use as a garnish.

Cut out the rest of the melon flesh and transfer it to a blender. Peel and pit 1 peach. Slice it into chunks and add them to the blender.

With a sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds; add them to the mixture in the blender. Add the sugar and lemon juice to the blender. Puree until well blended. Strain the melon mixture through a sieve to remove any small lumps of fruit. You will have about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of soup. (You can make the soup up to a day in advance. Keep it chilled in the refrigerator.)

Just before serving, peel and pit the remaining 2 peaches. Slice each half into 4 wedges.

Divide the melon soup among 6 chilled shallow soup bowls. Arrange the reserved melon balls in the middle. Surround the melon balls with the peach wedges. Dot with berries or currants. Garnish with sprigs of mint.

Serve immediately.

6 servings. Each serving: 127 calories; 24 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 0 saturated fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 3.04 grams fiber.

Melon Granita

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes

When you blend red currants with yellow melon, you end up with a pretty pink melon juice that makes a lovely granita.

4 cups Casaba or any ripe yellow melon

1/2 cup (about 1/4 pound) red currants, stems discarded

1 to 1 1/4 cups sugar, depending on the sweetness of the melon

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Mint sprigs

Chill a shallow baking dish in the freezer.

In a blender, puree the melon and currants with 1 cup sugar. Add the lemon juice and blend once again. Taste and add more sugar if necessary (the mixture should be a little sweeter than you might think, because it will be less sweet after being frozen).

Strain the melon mixture through a sieve to extract the juice and pulp. Pour into the baking dish and freeze, about 30 minutes.

When the melon mixture stars to set, mix it with a fork to break up the ice crystals and return it to the freezer. Repeat these steps every 30 minutes until the mixture has set and has a smooth, slightly grainy texture. This will take about 2 hours.

Serve in glass bowls, garnished with sprigs of mint.

6 servings. Each serving: 170 calories; 14 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 43 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 1.74 grams fiber.

Pineapple Soup With Melon

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes

All the fruit must be well chilled before making the soup. The pureed soup will separate if you let it sit too long, so serve it right away.

1 pineapple

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup light rum

1/2 honeydew

1/2 cantaloupe

1 pint blueberries

Mint sprigs, for garnish

Peel the pineapple and remove the hard core. Cut 1 whole slice of pineapple, about 1/4 inch thick. Slice it into 1/2-inch pieces and set them aside for garnish. Cut the rest of the pineapple into chunks and puree them in a blender. You should have about 2 cups. Put the puree through a strainer and discard the solids. Add sugar and rum to the blender and mix until the sugar is dissolved.

Using a melon-baller, scoop out most of the flesh of the honeydew and cantaloupe into little balls. Set aside.

Pour 1/3 cup of the fruit soup into each of 6 chilled glass dessert bowls. Add the pineapple, melon balls and blueberries to the bowls. Garnish with mint and serve immediately.

6 servings. Each serving: 272 calories; 25 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 52 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 4.34 grams fiber.

*

Sakai is author of “The Poetical Pursuit of Food” (Clarkson Potter, 1986).


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