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It is hard to untangle imagery of melons from summer barbecues, brunches or beach days. However, as the dark green rinds of watermelon begin to occupy North Fork farm stands, they also serve as the indicator of the rapidly approaching end of summer. 

“Watermelon was the first thing we ever sold on the side of the road here.”

William Lee, Sang Lee Farms

The arrival of melon season to the North Fork is a bittersweet annual occurrence. The colorful and sweet fruits encompass summertime nostalgia perhaps more than any other produce. 

At Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, watermelons are among their most in-demand crops during the August harvest. But watermelons for William Lee are more than just produce — they are a reminder of his roots. 

“Watermelon was the first thing we ever sold on the side of the road here,” said Lee, a third-generation farmer at Sang Lee, who moved to the farm to their Peconic location nearly 30 years ago. “My father told me if I could grow and care for them, I could sell them. They were my father’s and my favorite fruit.” 

In 1995, Lee planted his first watermelon seeds, hand-painted a sign and sold the fruit on the side of the road. He sat on the porch at lunchtime and waited for cars to pull over — selling the melons by size. 

“I had lots of repeat customers,” said Lee. “Once you had one of our melons, nothing else could compare. The demand for more melons created an opportunity to expand more acreage for this delicious crop. It is still one of our favorites.” 

As summer stretches into August, there is nothing that encompasses the height of the season quite like a refreshing melon. From finding new varieties at farm stands to celebrating with a watermelon-eating contest at Harbes Family Farms’ annual Watermelon Festival, there are plenty of ways to celebrate this late-summer treat on the North Fork.

“There’s nothing like breaking open a warm melon at the end of a long summer day and eating it while sitting on the bed of my truck,” said Al Krupski of Krupski’s Farms in Peconic. “So many of my memories with my parents and grandparents are of us eating melons after a long day. It’s something we always ate outside during the late summer.” 

But this much-loved yet often misunderstood fruit is much more than filler in side salads. From their complicated genus to their popular yet controversial “seedless” varieties, there is a lot to discover.

A rich history

Melons, with all their varieties, are complex in their definition. While often melons are labeled as fruit, noted by their sweet fleshiness, they technically fall in the Cucurbitaceae, or gourd family. From here, melons are separated into two genera: Cucumis (melons) and Citrullus (watermelon). 

Krupski Farms in Peconic is well-known for its pumpkins. People travel from New York City and across Long Island to pick pumpkins every October. However, Al Krupski’s favorite crop to grow each season is watermelons. 

“We grow our watermelons with all the same planters and fertilizers as our pumpkins because they are in the same family as vegetables like squash and zucchini,” said Krupski.

The origins of melons can be traced over nearly 4000 years to the warm valleys of Southwest Asia, according to research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. India and Iran have significant associations with melons, which continue to be one of the most important horticultural crops in the regions. 

In the United States, early settlers grew varieties of honeydew and casaba melons throughout the 1600s. Today, there are over 40 different types of melons. In North America, the most popular types of melons are cantaloupe, muskmelon, honeydew and, of course, watermelon. 

Yet, there are plenty of melon varieties unknown to most but grown on the North Fork. At Flavour Fields Greenhouse in Riverhead, general manager Nicolas Mazard grows a tiny type of watermelon from South America, called a pepquiño. 

“It’s so fascinating to go to an outdoor market in South America or in Asia and see so many flavors that Americans have never experienced before,” said Mazard. “Pepquiños look like tiny watermelons but have a tangy and juicy cucumber-esque flavor. They are perfect for pickling or eating whole — but they’re not often seen on the North Fork.” 

Not an easy feat to cultivate

When talking about melons, it must be noted that these fruits, in particular watermelons, are notoriously hard to grow successfully. 

“As a farmer, it is interesting because you have to care for them like you would a vegetable,” said Lucy Senesac, who jointly operates Sang Lee Farms with her partner, William Lee. “Melons are a big part of what we do, but it is a long game with them. They are a difficult crop from planting to harvest. They are very heavy and don’t ripen all at once.” 

At age 10, the family’s green thumb was already apparent in Lee. He spent that summer of 1995 weeding and watering the finicky produce. Lee flagged the watermelons in the canopy of the rows in order to harvest the melons daily at the exact time of perfect ripeness.

“I used a greenhouse pushcart to push them up from the planting area in the back of our 25-acre field to the road to sell them,” said Lee. “But that is where it all started for Sang Lee Farms retail on County Road 48.” 

Nearly 30 years later, Sang Lee is a North Fork frontrunner for growing unique melons. Currently, the farm stand sells cantaloupe as well as three varieties of seedless watermelon, all of which are organic and can be differentiated by their bright colors. 

Knowing when melons are ripe and ready to be picked is a feat in its own right. Unlike most fruit, melons do not continue to ripen once they’ve been picked — if they are picked too early, the entire fruit goes to waste. 

For particular types of melon, such as the classic watermelon, you can predict the ripeness based on a field spot. If the spot where the melon lays is yellow, not white, it is good for picking. Another way to tell is by knocking on the watermelon. If it makes a hollow sound, it is a peak ripeness, while a thud means it is overripe and a higher-pitched noise means it is not yet ready. 

“The best way to tell is to break one open and try it. They’re really something that needs to be grown and sold locally. That’s when they’re best.” 

Al Krupski, Kruspski Farms

Other melons, such as the cantaloupe, are easier to grow. The orange melons can be picked if the fruit easily comes off the vine, with no part of the stem still stuck to its bottom. Another trick to tell is to press against the stem indentation with your thumb or nail. The indentation should be neither hard nor soft – with the former meaning the fruit isn’t ripe yet and the latter indicating the fruit may be too mature.

How do you get seedless melons? 

At Krupski Farms, their heirloom varieties of watermelon contain the traditional black seeds – “for spittin’,” as Krupski put it. 

“The old-fashioned varieties have a different flavor,” said Krupski. 

However, the majority of watermelons sold in the United States are of the seedless variety. In 2020, they made up 92% of all watermelon sales, a shocking jump for a product invented only 70 years prior.

Of course, seedless watermelons are not technically “seedless.” The majority still contain the immature white coating of what would have been black seeds. Both of which are perfectly safe to consume, despite the old wives’ tale.

The system for creating seedless watermelons was developed in 1951, by H. Kihara, a scientist and professor at Kyoto University in Japan. Professor Kihara found that crossing a diploid plant containing the standard two sets of chromosomes with a tetraploid plant, which includes four sets of chromosomes, results in fruit with triploid seeds, or three sets of chromosomes. 

“People who come to us for organic food are always skeptical when we first try to explain seedless watermelons,” said Senesac. “But we emphasize that our three types of seedless melons are not genetically modified. It’s a complicated process that we’ve improved upon over the past 10 years.”

This process of producing seedless melons produces sterile hybrids — meaning that the small white seeds are incapable of producing any fruit — similar to how a mule is a result of breeding a horse and a donkey. Rather, it is a system of selective cross-breeding.

Senesac, who found Sang Lee’s non-GMO organically grown varieties of seedless watermelon challenging to explain, created an infographic to aid customers in understanding the differences between their seedless watermelons. 

“Our red seedless has a floral sweetness — the classic and pure refreshing watermelon taste,” said Senesac. “Our yellow seedless are super sweet, almost acidic like honey. Our orange seedless variety is a blend of the red and yellow flavors, with subtly sweet citrus notes and a crisp texture.”

From farm to table

A quick Google search can result in numerous recipes that go beyond melons as just the leftover fruit on the platter at the summer barbecue. There are endless ways to use up an entire melon — whether it’s making a smoothie or throwing it on the grill along with the rest of the barbecue. 

Melons can be transformed into more complex items as well. Over the years, numerous recipes utilizing melon in unique ways have grown in popularity, whether it’s on pizza or in a salad. Many recipes featuring watermelon have gone “viral,” for example soy-soaked melon was used as an alternative to tuna in a vegan version of a poke bowl. 

Yet on the North Fork, due to the difficult nature of growing and harvesting melons, they are not always featured on the menus of many restaurants during their season. However, one chef makes attempts to make melon the star ingredient. 

“I’ve tried to take a fairly common ingredient and do something different with it,” said Taylor Knapp, chef of PawPaw pop-up located at the Lin Beach House hotel in Greenport.

With his creative culinary pop-up at Pawpaw, Knapp utilizes many different types of melon — often striving for unique flavors not often seen on other plates in North Fork restaurants. His restaurant, which is open on select Saturday evenings, has an ever-changing five-course tasting menu. The menu, a surprise to patrons until the day of, features a bounty of North Fork-grown cuisine. 

“We always start with a snack. A type of finger food to kick-off the meal before we launch into our larger dishes,” said Knapp. “In the past, we’ve featured a dish called ‘seedless watermelon with lots of seeds’ in which I took a seedless watermelon and coated it with sunflower seeds, fennel, cumin and coriander. You got the sweetness of the watermelon but in this wonderful crunch and flavorful bite.” 

Knapp, who always features tea during the beginning of the meal, served long-infusion, chilled watermelon juice-based tea, mixed with botanicals such as lavender and fennel. He’s also served savory and sweet versions, featuring honeydew and cantaloupe. 

“I’ve used pepquiño from Flavour Fields as an experiment of sour flavors,” said Knapp. “They are the size of an olive, and I gave them a quick char on the grill and served them with sea salt and herbs. They burst in your mouth, almost like a grape. It’s such a unique and unusual flavor.” 

At Pawpaw, Knapp has also served dehydrated melon, which, when all the water is removed, tastes like a fruity toffee. He’s made sorbets and even pickled watermelon as well as the rinds — saving on waste in his kitchen. 

“The pickled rind was a great addition to a fatty pork belly,” said Knapp. “We try to not repeat dishes but during the end of summer, we try to savor fruit as much we can and melons are such an end-of-summer treat that is fun to experiment with.”