Secret Life of Watermelons: Fresh, Sweet and Serious, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, July 30, 1997

“Watermelon is a very democratic fruit: large enough to feed a crowd, sweet enough to please children and low enough in calories to appeal to weight-conscious adults.

Most important, it is almost impossible to tuck into a slice without juice dripping down your chin, which definitely discourages pomposity.

Its appeal spans cultural borders, too. Slices are sold as street food from Lima, Peru, to Bangkok, Thailand; roasted watermelon seeds are a snack in Iran and China, and the melon’s juice is a popular drink, from the roadside stands of Malaysia to the beaches of Mexico, where it is combined with water and sugar to make licuados. In this country, we eat more than three billion pounds of the melon each year.

Watermelon is also popular in southern Europe, particularly in Italy. In fact, until the middle of the 19th century many Europeans believed that watermelon originated there. Then, in the 1850’s, the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone stumbled across vast fields of these sweet melons growing wild in their true area of origin: the Kalahari desert in southern Africa. Like the wild melons still found there, the ones Livingstone discovered were the size of oranges.

Today’s big melons are the result of modern breeding; some 50 varieties are grown commercially in the United States, but all of them can be divided into four general categories. There is little difference in flavor: all are sweet and pleasantly fruity, with faint overtones of vanilla.

* Picnic melons, named for their ability to feed a crowd, are the largest, weighing 15 to 60 pounds. They include the popular Crimson Sweet and Charleston Gray varieties, and may be either elongated or round.

* Icebox melons, developed to fit into refrigerators, weigh 5 to 15 pounds and are round. The most popular variety is the Sugar Baby.

* Yellow-fleshed watermelons, which have gained in popularity, are elongated and large, in the 15-to-30-pound range. Desert King and Honeyhart are the best known.

* Seedless melons, like the Tiffany and the heart family (King, Queen and Jack of Hearts), can be oval or round and weigh 10 to 20 pounds. They have seeds, but they are soft and white rather than hard and dark.

It is difficult to tell from the outside when a melon is ripe. But there are ways to divine the inner state of a melon. First, look for a specimen that is free of bruises or cuts, and heavy for its size; melons picked past their peak lose some of their water and are lighter and mealier.

The side where the melon has lain on the ground while growing should be a light creamy yellow; if it is white, the melon is probably not ripe. The rind of a ripe melon has a healthy sheen, neither very shiny nor very dull.

The best test of ripeness, however, is the time-honored thump test. As taught to us by our maternal grandfathers, this consists of placing your forefinger against your thumb, then snapping the melon with the forefinger and listening to the retort. A ripe melon should sound hollow.

Of course, an easier way to be sure you are getting a ripe melon is to buy one already cut. Watermelon keeps very well for two to three days when cut and wrapped in plastic. Look for flesh that is dark red (or bright yellow), with dark hard seeds. Streaks of white in the flesh indicate an immature melon, while a melon with a mealy texture is too old.

Our grandfathers contributed to our enjoyment of watermelon in another way. They liked to sprinkle it with plenty of salt and pepper, and eat it as a kind of appetizer. So, we learned early that the crisp, sweet flesh of watermelon is excellent in savory as well as sweet dishes.”

-Excerpt and image courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Secret Life of Watermelons: Fresh, Sweet and Serious,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, July 30, 1997

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