Let them eat melons

Food - Bee Wilson tells American Republicans how to cool down after their convention

The Republicans have left Philadelphia. George "Dubbya" Bush and his troops have taken the campaign elsewhere, and with it a trail of overheated hacks. The press that dismissed the "city of brotherly love" as a second-rate metropolis - not as fun as New York, not as serious as Washington - will not be sorry to have left it behind.

So let them go. In a broiling American summer, Philadelphia is not the worst place you could be. For one thing, there's Independence Hall. This tiny assembly room, where the American constitution was drawn up during the blistering summer of 1787, is the most quietly stirring political monument in the US. Here, patriotic guides recreate some of the debates that took place between Madison and Hamilton before "We, the People . . ." was drafted. And then, as you reel back out into the oven of Chestnut Street, there's the ice-cold melon.

When I arrived in Philadelphia as a student a few years back, I was hot, bewildered and homesick. A nervous English girl, too pallid for the heat, I thought that men with guns were jumping out of every apartment block. What kept me going at first were the boxes of melon I bought from stalls on the wide sidewalks. Thick slices of orange, green and pink iced melon were cut so neatly that they fitted together like bricks, with strawberries to fill any gaps. The melon-sellers were mainly smart Korean women, who carved the fruit as you watched, and then served it with a paper napkin and a plastic fork: $1.50 for a small box, $3.50 for a box generous enough to quench the most feverish melon-thirst. It was almost always on the edge of perfect ripeness, still firm, and as cold as sorbet - so calming that you could almost forget for a moment the sirens and the guns, and think instead of Madison and Hamilton eating water-ice in the summer of 1787.

Melons are the most refreshing of all summer fruits, the more so because their refreshment is elusive. Finding a specimen at its point of perfect ripeness is hit-or-miss. The English practice of adding ginger and sugar to melon is a typically make-do response to inferior fruit. But it isn't a solution. If you have a melon so unsatisfying that you feel it needs the ginger treatment, it isn't really worth eating, at least not raw. Eliza Acton recommends pickling unripe green melons, by soaking in vinegar and cooking in sugar syrup with cloves, as a condiment to serve with meats. If, on the other hand, you find yourself adding ginger to a truly ripe half of orange Charentais, then you must be mad, because a good melon cannot be improved upon.

The question of how to judge if a melon is good has vexed gourmets for centuries. A French writer in the early 20th century insisted that you had to try 50 fruits to be sure of one really excellent example. Fragrant cantaloupe melons, such as Ogen, Galia and Charentais, can be tested by sniffing, but even a fine perfume is no guarantee that the flesh inside won't be woolly or hard. You can also test for ripeness by pressing on the end opposite the stem. If it yields, it is ripe. But then again,when you cut it open, it may be overripe and rotten-tasting, or it may just lack the special bouquet that distinguishes the truly great melon from the merely acceptable.

A melon that would disclose its true character from the outside is a working definition of Utopia. Indeed, one Utopian, the socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837), actually prophesied a society so harmonious that no melon would ever again dupe its buyer. Yet this is somehow missing the point. It is only the bad melons that make the good ones magical, just as it was only the dusty streets of Philadelphia that made the iced melon taste quite so sweet.

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, So, who still wants to be a millionaire?