THE SECRET LIVES OF WORDS: Melons, Oysters and Caesar AUGUSTus
This is a delicious month for foodies in North Carolina and across the U.S. Right after National Raspberry Cream Pie Day and Ice Cream Sandwich Day on Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, Aug. 3 is National Watermelon Day, an occasion near and dear to the hearts of many Americans. The nutrient-packed watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is one of North Carolina’s top-ranked, multi-million dollar cash crops, and the town of Murfreesboro is sponsoring the 33rd Annual NC Watermelon Festival this week, Aug. 1-4. Melon seed-spitting contests are practically an Olympic sport in America; the world record spit, set by a Texan, exceeded 68 feet. The Murfreesboro competition is 2 p.m. Saturday, so there’s still time to practice.
The fruit seems to have originated in northeast Africa or southwest Asia and was cultivated in Egypt from the second millennium B.C. onward – seeds have even been found in King Tut’s 14th-century tomb. Eventually, the watermelon found its way to Greece and Rome, where medical writers commented on its health benefits, including its use as a diuretic. Pliny the Elder remarked that it was not only a refreshing food but also an effective laxative and medication for sores and acne. We know today that watermelons, chock full of the antioxidant lycopene, amino acids, Vitamins A and C, potassium and other nutrients, are among the healthiest things we can eat.
The ancients called the melon pepon, and a Roman melon vendor was a peponarius/watermelon man (remember that funky 1960s Herbie Hancock song?). The fruit was expensive; a delicacy enjoyed chiefly by the wealthy. The second-century emperor Clodius Albinus is said to have consumed 10 at a single meal. Some of us sprinkle a bit of salt on our melon; similarly, the fourth-century cookbook of Apicius has a recipe for a spicy sauce to drizzle over the fleshy fruit. Anthimus in his 6th–century A.D. Latin dietary handbook recommended flavoring the fruit with vinegar and pennyroyal—a variety of mint once used as an herbal remedy but now recognized as highly toxic.
Average Romans were more familiar with the watermelon’s relatives, pumpkins and gourds, variously known as colocynthae and cucurbitae, which likewise were valued as food and for medicinal purposes. One type of pumpkin was called in Latin melopepo, which means “apple-gourd” and is the origin of our word MELon.
The philosopher Seneca, the tutor to the young Nero, wrote a viciously funny satire on the lad’s deceased uncle, the emperor Claudius. He titled the pamphlet ApoCOLOCYNTosis, “The Gourdification,” imagining that upon his death the brilliant but awkward monarch was transformed not, like his imperial predecessors, into a god (an apoTHEosis, as in THEology and aTHEist) but a gourd. To his critics the image suited Claudius perfectly, as he had a big round head that seemed full, detractors might say, of only fiber and seeds.
Two days after Melon Day, Aug. 5, is National Oyster Day. Jonathan Swift once wrote, “He was a bold man that first eat [sic] an oyster.” That culinary hero (from culina/kitchen) lived in the Stone Age, as archaeologists have discovered oyster shell middens dating back 10,000 years. There's lots more bold folk these days, as Americans alone consume over 30 million pounds a year – half of those, I’m guessing, during the North Carolina Oyster Festival held in Ocean Isle Beach each fall (this year’s event, the 38th annual, is scheduled for Oct. 20-21).
The ancient Romans had an absolute mania for oysters (Lat. ostreae). The most exquisite came from the Bay of Naples, which by the first century B.C. had a commercial oyster farming industry, though Romans also imported them from as far away as England. They ate them raw, sometimes iced with snow, boiled, fried, or in casseroles. The emperor Vitellius, notorious for gluttony and obesity, reportedly downed a thousand at one sitting. Perhaps he was prescient, knowing he would reign only eight months before being murdered in A.D. 69 by his successor Vespasian’s troops and wanting to get his fill of the succulent mollusks before his demise.
Vitellius was the eighth of Rome’s more than 200 emperors; Julius Caesar’s grand-nephew and adoptive son Octavian, the future “Augustus,” was the first. His rule brought an end to civil war and lasted 45 years, from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14. In 8 B.C. the Roman Senate changed Sextilis, the “Sixth” month in Rome’s earliest calendar (as in SEXtuplets/SEXtet) to Augustus/August, commemorating the fact that many of the emperor’s military and political successes had over the years occurred in that month. There was a precedent, as the month Quintilis/Fifth (think QUINTet/QUINTuplets) had been similarly renamed Iulius/July a generation earlier to honor Caesar.
Had Octavian lost the Battle of Actium in 31 to his arch-enemy Marcus Antonius (and his Egyptian consort Cleopatra), “August” might now instead be “Antony”! As it is, “Antonius” has given us the men’s names “Anthony,” “Antoine,” and “Tony.” And then, back to speaking of seafood, there’s the Bistro D'Antonio in Waxhaw, NC, just 20 miles south of Charlotte. They offer shrimp, calamari, salmon, and even clams and mussels, in an attractive dining room with a full bar. If we could only talk them into a watermelon martini for starters, a dozen ostreae on the half shell, and for dessert maybe the Sicilian favorite, gelo di melone, chilled watermelon pudding, then life would indeed be our oyster.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is UBI FERA SUNT, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time. Rick and his wife Alice live part of the year in Little Switzerland, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.