25 Aug What Happened to the Watermelon?

I love watermelons. In the summer, I will eat one a week. All by myself. If the day is particularly hot and I’m especially thirsty, I might eat half a watermelon in one sitting. So imagine my surprise and dismay when, just yesterday, I realized that I haven’t eaten a single decent watermelon all summer. Then I realized this: every watermelon I’ve bought this summer has been seedless. These are the only melons available in my two nearest grocery stores. So, what gives? Do the grocers think that seedless is best? Is this some kind of watermelon conspiracy to support corporate farms that are manufacturing the inferior but costlier seedless melon?

Let me be clear: seedless watermelons suck. Before this summer, I’d buy one occasionally on a whim. Every time — every time — I have been disappointed. Seedless watermelons are a) too dense and sometimes downright tough — you don’t get the textured chew that you get from a seeded watermelon, whose flesh has more air in it and, as a result, melts in your mouth;, b) too sweet but without any balance of flavor, like they’ve been infused with glucose or, in surrendering their seeds, have surrendered their flavor; c) or too sour — there is something wanting at the heart of these melons: their sourness seems an expression of loss. So, we get all of this melon failure in exchange for what, the absence of seeds?

Are you kidding? Seeds make eating watermelon fun. What’s more, that little bit of work augments the joy of eating — our mouths take delight in the exercise, which only increases our appetite. So let me say it straight: traditional — seeded — watermelons are more robust in size and flavor and, significantly, better looking, a rich dark green, which seems to say it all about their goodness. With the rise of the bloated, tasteless seedless watermelon, is my old favorite going the way of the tomato?

Here are a few fun facts from the Watermelon Promotion Board:

  • The first recorded watermelon harvest occurred nearly 5,000 years ago in Egypt.
  • Over 1,200 varieties of watermelons are grown worldwide in 96 countries.
  • In some Mediterranean countries, the taste of watermelon is paired with the salty taste of feta cheese.
  • Watermelon is 92% water.
  • Watermelon’s official name is Citrullus Lanatus of the botanical family Curcurbitaceae. It is cousins to cucumbers, pumpkins and squash.
  • By weight, watermelon is the most-consumed melon in the U.S., followed by cantaloupe and honeydew.
  • Early explorers used watermelons as canteens.
  • The first cookbook published in the U.S. in 1796 contained a recipe for watermelon rind pickles.

Mark Twain had this to say about the watermelon: “The true southern watermelon is a boon apart and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.”

One old college prank was to wager than nobody could eat a whole watermelon in a single sitting, rind and all. If you attempt this in the usual water-eating fashion, you are doomed to lose the bet. The only way to win is to squeeze all of the water out of the melon first, eat the solid parts, then drink the liquid.

Here’s a watermelon story: when I was in my twenties and living in Berkeley, CA, as a musician, I rented rehearsal space in an sprawling old building that had once been a laundry plant. It was made of wood and should have been condemned. Two brothers, recent immigrants, owned it. The elder was trying to refurbish the place and rent out space to various enterprises. His dream was to turn it into an arts center. The younger brother, let’s call him Joseph Fong, spent his days driving around the Bay Area collecting old pianos, which he’d bring back to the plant and fix up to sell. He must have had fifty old pianos crowding the front part of the building.

One evening, Joseph arrived with an old-style farm truck and unloaded about one hundred watermelons onto the concrete floor just beyond his crowd of pianos. I assumed he had come upon a wholesale melon deal that he could not refuse. When he left, I inspected his coup: in the gloom of the building’s center the 100 melons lay, huge and ripe, like dinosaur eggs nearing their time. A poor musician (and mad about watermelons), I was sorely tempted to take one. But I did not.

Every day I would arrive at the laundry to practice my instrument and every day I’d see the watermelons sitting in their gloomy repository. By the weeks’ end, I began to worry for them. What did Joseph Fong have in mind? By the end of the second week, the melons were odorous. By the end of the third, they were blackening. They stayed, and rotted, for three months until they puddled the floor and that part of the laundry smelled like a meat-processing plant on a hot day.

Then one day, it was all gone, the concrete floor scrubbed clean, though the smell lingered for a while. To this day I wonder what went through Joesph’s mind as he wheeled his broken pianos into the laundry every day and smelled the rot of his forgotten watermelons. And what did he say to his serious, enterprising brother? It seems an example of good intentions — and dreams of commerce — gone awry. If you got one hundred watermelons tomorrow, could you get rid of them?