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Savor the flavor of melon with salt
Everyone eats watermelon differently, but is the idea of salting fruit more of a Southern tradition or a matter of taste? Some say it’s simple chemistry. - photo by Michelle Boaen Jameson

Juicy watermelon and cantaloupe slices sprinkled with salt have been mainstays on the Southern summer table for decades.

But is the idea of adding salt to certain fruits a regional tradition, a scientific phenomenon or a matter of personal preference?

"It’s a combination of all three," said Daryl Shular, corporate executive chef at PFG Miltons in Oakwood and member of the Culinary Olympic Team USA. "It’s definitely a Southern thing. It’s just something I saw my mother and family members put salt on, and as far as a scientific thing, it’s about balance.

"From the baking perspective, if you were making a peach chutney so that it’s not so sweet, you round out the flavor by putting a pinch of salt."

Recently, Shular put together his signature summer menu with a recipe that mixed sweet watermelon with salty Gorgonzola cheese in a cold summer soup.

"It’s kind of a combination of sweet and salty," he said. "You have the sweet watermelon and then you have the saltiness of the Gorgonzola cheese."

The Summer Melon and Pickled Cucumber Salad with Crumbled Gorgonzola has hints of white balsamic vinegar and clover honey to keep the sweet and salty theme running through the recipe.

"If it’s hot, you need cold and sweet, you need salty," said Shular, who enjoys a sprinkle of salt on honey dew, watermelon and cantaloupe.

The folks at the National Watermelon Board don’t get too excited about adding salt to sweet watermelon, but they know it happens often after thick watermelon slices are cut.

Gordon Hunt, director of marketing and communications of the National Watermelon Board based in Lakeland, Fla., said he thinks that salting different types of melon, especially watermelon, is a personal preference.

"We’ve heard a lot of ideas, I haven’t heard any where someone has said, ‘we’ve tested it and this is absolutely what happens,’" he said. "It’s more a taste of personal preference and what we’re used to. For example, my mother used to put salt on everything.

"Other people have said its because watermelon has no acid. It’s very low in acid, which is why you have a hard time pasteurizing watermelon juice. There might be people who use more salt in the thinking that ‘ah, this makes it taste better.’"

Hunt did say the idea of salting watermelon is particularly Southern, but not necessarily. His mother was from Oklahoma and salted her watermelon, along with every other fruit and vegetable.

"I’ve talked to watermelon growers in California who added salt to watermelon," he said.

Which in a small way debunks the theory that the tradition is simply Southern.

Then there’s Jeff Rector, a local Gainesville resident who is just crazy about salted fruit. He loves to salt his melon and other fruits and thinks the seasoning of melons probably started out as a Southern tradition and then became personal preference.

"I just think that it enhances the flavor of the fruit," said Rector, who also salts honey dew, oranges, pineapple and apples. "Anything tastes better with the salt but it makes the outside of the fruit juicy because it’s drawing the juice out ... and it brings the juice right to the edge of the watermelon — the salt is drawing it out.

"I don’t salt extremely sweet fruit except when I salt pineapple ... that’s the most acidic fruit and it kind of calms down the acid."

So, if you draw out the juice of a melon with salt or you are a fruit naturalist, one thing is for sure, go out and enjoy your summer melons for a sweet, and maybe salty, treat.

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