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Getting the real scoop on cantaloupes: how to tell if they're ripe for purchase

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IT IS JULY and the air is filled with the aroma of lopes.

In the argot of Maryland produce stand clerks, lopes - sometimes spelled loupes - are cantaloupes. Their perfume is a regular roadside attraction of summertime produce shopping.

While I revel in the bouquet of lopes, I struggle with the question of how to pick a ripe one. Do I simply give it the sniff test, looking for the familiar "buy me" scent? Should I shake it, listening for moving seeds? Or do I give it the intense eyeball, looking at the color of the skin under the melon's netting?

To find out how to tell a good lope from a bad one, I recently consulted a variety of lope lovers - eaters and a grower - and a couple of cantaloupe Web sites.

I got a variety of responses.

Ruth Palmer, who lives in Denton and works at Delmarva Data Center in Easton, said she uses three steps to determine if a lope is ripe. She sniffs it. She shakes it. She eyeballs it.

A good cantaloupe, she said, has a distinctive aroma. I found quick agreement on this point in a cantaloupe-advice section of a Web site run by Emazing.Com. The cyberspace lope lovers added, "If you can't sniff it, don't buy it."

Palmer said she also shakes the melon to listen for seeds. If she hears them, she doesn't buy the melon.

John Selby, who operates the Farmer John produce stand next to the Bay Bridge Airport on Route 8 in Stevensville, agreed with this portion of Palmer's method, saying most modern melons shouldn't have noisy seeds.

Selby, who is 84 years old, said that years ago, he grew some varieties of cantaloupes that had seeds that moved when the fruit was ripe. Back then, the sound of seeds rattling was a sign of ripeness, he said. But nowadays the meat of melon is thick, and the seeds are stationary. For the most part, he said, "You don't want to hear seeds shaking."

As for the eyeball part of the examination, Palmer said she looks at the color of flesh under the netting on the cantaloupe. "It has to be more yellow than green," she said. The Produce Marketing Association of Newark, Del., agreed with this assessment. Its Web site advised looking for cantaloupe that had "a yellowish cast under the netting."

Farmer John told me that rather than color, he looked at the lope's "stem slip." He talks like that sometimes, even when he is sitting in the middle of a cornfield in Queen Anne's County, as he was the other day, chatting on his cell phone after having "pulled" 13 baskets of a sugar-enhanced white corn called Frosty.

I had to probe several university Web sites to find out what Farmer John was talking about when he mentioned "stem slip." He was talking about the stem of the lope.

A University of Alabama Web site explained to me that "muskmelons are harvested according to the degree of stem slip, which is when the stem begins to separate from the melon.

"For shipping," it continued "it is best to harvest when the muskmelons begin to slip," usually " 1/2 slip" or " 3/4 slip."

According to cantaloupe experts at Oklahoma State University, "At half slip, the ... layer between the stem and fruit ... will allow the remaining half to separate from the melon with a slight pull."

So now when I shop for a lope, I might sniff it, examine its color, tug at its stem and ask the clerk in a knowing way, "Is this a half-stem slip?" I still don't precisely know what the term means, but it sounds authoritative.

Or I could follow the example of Ed Nolley Jr., Palmer's boss at Delmarva Data Center. As he was driving along U.S Route 50 recently, Nolley stopped at Farmer Bill's produce stand outside Easton. While he was eyeing the lopes, he saw two truck drivers stop at the stand, pick a watermelon, walk a few yards away from the stand, crack the melon open with a rock and devour the whole thing in about 10 minutes. He was so impressed with their passion, he bought watermelon at the stand. Rather than relying on aroma, color or stem slip, Nolley had found another way of picking good melons. Just find a couple of enthusiastic eaters and buy what they do.

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