A few weeks ago, cantaloupe from a farm in southwestern Indiana was linked to an outbreak of salmonella that sickened 178 people across the nation. Between this recent incident, and a similar problem with listeria-contaminated cantaloupe from Colorado reported last year, the fruit is causing a great deal of concern for consumers and farmers alike.
Thomas Wickham of Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, Long Island, sells cantaloupe at his farm stand and says he’s been fielding questions from many of his customers. “We think that most of the disease problems come from big packing houses where they actually submerge the melons in different kinds of solutions, and sometimes that solution gets contaminated and covers them all,” explained Wickham, who added that his cantaloupe sales have remained steady. "We just brush them off, get the sand and dirt off them and sell them fresh, just they way they are.”
Food safety expert Marion Nestle expounded that, when the melon is cut, bacteria on the outside of the melon contaminates the flesh inside when it travels on the blade of the knife. “You can try washing,” she said. “You can drop it in boiling water for a minute, and that’ll take care of everything that’s on the outside, but otherwise I guess there’s a risk involved in it, especially if you’re buying it from a big commercial grower.”
If the prospect of slightly boiled melon is not particularly appealing, Nestle believes that avoiding mass-grown cantaloupe is a good way to lessen the risk of getting contaminated fruit. “If they’re coming from a farmers market, the probability of contamination is much, much less,” she said. That reason for that, she added, is because oftentimes the contamination occurs during the washing and packing process, as Wickham noted. Smaller operations generally don't include those steps before sending the melons to market.
Wickham also had some advice on picking out a sweet, ripe melon, though he said it can be hard even for farmers to tell. First off, he discounted the method of pressing on the stem point of the melon.
(Photo: Thomas Wickham at Wickham's Fruit Farm/Courtesy of Thomas Wickham)
“If you press very hard, you go right through it — you got to be careful — and, really, it’s not about pressing,” he said. “There are two indices that we think are really important and one of them is, it has to have a lot of netting. That white netting on the outside — the more netting there is the sweeter and the better quality the melon.”
The netting, or pattern on the exterior of the melon, should be consistent. “Uniformity is important,” Wickham said. “It would be good to have that netting all the way around it, more or less uniform. That makes a better quality melon.”
When it comes to locally grown melon, though, the farmer did explain that it’s challenging to grow melons on Long Island, given the rain and humidity of the area. Cantaloupes are a desert crop that thrive in hot, dry conditions. “It’s just very difficult to prevent mildew and those kinds of diseases of the plant,” Wickham explained. “That’s what fungicides and what spraying is for. And I don’t think that any of us who grow melons, or scarcely any of us who grow melons, on Long Island try to do it organically. It’s just too risky.”
Organic methods of fungus control, like using sulphur, are not effective, Wickham said. Without the fungicides he applied once every 10 days, he said, the plants simply wouldn’t survive.
Once the crop is safely harvested, Wickham has a simple method of enjoying the fruit. “For myself, just to cut it, remove the seeds and have ice cream on it,” he said. “That’s just perfect in the summer time.”
For those looking for more innovative uses of cantaloupe, try the recipe Wickham provided for cantaloupe granita, which is below.
Yield 4-8 servings
- 1 ¼ cups superfine sugar
- ½ cup water
- ¼ cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
- 2 medium cantaloupes (about 4 lbs each), peeled and seeded, cut into 1-inch wedges
- Pinch of salt
Combine the sugar and water over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the mint. Remove the pan from heat and let cool.
Puree the fruit in a food processor until liquefied. Pour the fruit into a medium bowl and add the salt. Remove the mint leaves from the syrup. Add the syrup to the pureed fruit and mix well.
Pour the cantaloupe mixture into a pre-chilled 7 by 12 inch glass baking dish.* Place it uncovered into the freezer. Stir with a fork every 30 minutes until almost completely frozen but still grainy, about 3 to 4 hours.
*This works best in two glass loaf pans or one 7 by 12 baking dish. The only critical point is not to stir it past the almost frozen state or the ice crystals will become too fine and hard to scrape.