For a late-summer month or so, Bradford watermelons were showing up seemingly everywhere in Charleston. And now the heirloom melon has shown up in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste catalog, a global list of “delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction.”
“The Bradford watermelon is a plant with a beautiful flavor and a beautiful history, and I am thrilled to see it included on the Ark of Taste,” says Megan Larmer, manager of biodiversity programs for Slow Food USA. “Foods like this watermelon are at risk of disappearing because they don’t fit into the factory farming system.”
More than 200 U.S. foods have been added to the Ark, including Ossabaw Island hogs, Carolina Gold rice; American chestnuts and traditional cane syrup. Anyone can nominate an item to the Ark, but only foods deemed endangered, good, clean and fair (meaning it’s not a trademarked or commercial product) are allowed aboard.
The Bradford, championed mightily by food historian David Shields, was first bred in the 1840s by Nathaniel Bradford. It was one of the region’s reigning end-of-season market melons until the early 1900s, when farmers shifted their focus from flavor to hardiness: Their interest in disease-resistant melons which were easy to transport led to the last commercial crop of Bradfords being planted in 1922.
But Bradford’s descendants continued to grow the melon: His great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Nat Bradford, in 2012 told Shields about the family’s inheritance. “I met him, reviewed his photographs against the classic description of the melon’s characteristics, and concluded he had the real deal,” Shields recalled in a Slow Food USA blog post.
Fans of the elongated Bradford describe it as an extraordinarily sweet melon with a tender rind. Following the lead of 18th century cooks, Charleston chefs this year pickled it; boiled it down for molasses and turned it into jellied candy.
Slow Food this week approved the Bradford’s entry into the Ark.
“The dedication of the Bradford family in preserving this watermelon is remarkable,” Larmer says.