We spoke last week of the cantaloupe as one of the finest products of the 18th century kitchen garden. This form of melon was not, however, the melon of the ancient Greek and Romans. That melon was described by Pliny the Elder as a “cucumis” for which the emperor Tiberius had a remarkable partiality and famously consumed on every day of the year. Pliny’s “cucumis” has long been interpreted as a cucumber but recent investigation has proved it to be a melon of the Armenian or Serpent kind. To add to the confusion, when this melon was first introduced to Williamsburg, to the astonishment of many, it was called the Turkey Cucumber for though it is recognized by the botanists as a true melon of the species Cucumis melo var. flexuosus it tastes very much like a cucumber.
It was first introduced to Virginia by John Custis who received the seed from the English plant collector, Peter Collinson. Custis wrote to Collinson in 1737 on the experiment of growing this extraordinary fruit: “the seeds of the long cucumber you sent me; I planted but none came up; I gave my son 3 seeds which all came up; notwithstanding the excessive drouth he had one more than 3 feet long; to the astonishment of many; several people rid many miles to see it…there are more people begd some of the seed; then 10 cucumbers can afford.”
It was reported in the Virginia Gazette that same year: “There grew, this summer, in the Garden of Mr. Daniel Parke Custis, in New-Kent County, a Cucumber, of the Turkey or Morocco Kind…They are ribb’d almost like a Musk-melon, colour’d like a Water-melon; and taste much like the common Cucumber. Several curious Persons have been to view them, the like having never been seen in these Parts before.” The “Turkey Cucumber” continues to astonish visitors to Williamsburg to this very day.
For a complete dissertation of the Cucumis genus you are encouraged to consult Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg way, 18th century methods for today’s organic gardeners (Rodale Press) .