Egg Of My Heart
Fat For Life
Forked: Or The Hands Have It
Great Cod Almighty
Great Cod Almighty!
Mac 'n' Cheese: Comfort out of the box
Olives, Horrible, Aren't They?
Sprinkle, Sprinkle Little Star
Wet, Wild, Watermelon
WRITING · RECIPES · TEACHING · PHOTOGRAPHY
I was in the ancient, dusty Samnite town of Venafro, south of Rome, sitting beneath the weak golden light from a string of bare bulbs. From the cold water running in the adjacent Roman aqueduct a happy merchant plucked a big round watermelon. With a knife, as broad and fast as youth, he divided it in six blinding movements. Small knives and napkins were passed all round and everyone got their enormous slice of this midsummer treat. A vintage Vespa scooter, with a handsome rider and pretty girl, rolled noisily up and took away a melon, dripping cold, in their basket. On the rim of the gurgling travertine fountain, water spewing from a worn-nosed lion’s head, sat a dirty faced little boy greedily biting at the last of his smile shaped rind. He wiped the back of his hand across his lips and let out a very grown up sigh of contentment.
This is what watermelon is about to anyone, any age, anywhere. All those summers believing the green striped colossus was just a happy summer commonplace were suddenly brought into focus. Maybe it wasn’t the best tasting, sweetest, happiest watermelon I had ever tasted, but that night, in that little piazza, it was — without doubt.
When I was a dirty faced little boy this jumbo delight, the citrullus lanatus , weighed in at over twenty five pounds and up to fifty. You bought them whole or not at all. These were the Jubilee or picnic watermelons — big, ovoid, with mahogany brown seeds designed to be projectiles. Like the Christmas tree, this was something your dad bought. He’d thump them to tell if it was ripe, and you took your chances. One melon might be cut for show, but pre-sliced didn’t exist then. There were, and are, smaller, rounder Crimson Sweets in the 16-35 pound range, still pretty big by today’s standards. And the 5-15 pound, dark green, round, ice box variety, or “Sugar Baby,” is still popular with those who want to take it home and chill it whole in the fridge.
The first “seedless” watermelon came out in 1948. It has small, white, edible underdeveloped seedpods, costs more, but seedless is isn’t. Doesn’t the idea of a watermelon without seeds just destroy the memory provoking powers of the fruit.
Before we go any further, it should be pointed out that, like the tomato which is a fruit passing as a vegetable, the watermelon is a vegetable passing as a fruit. Watermelons are part of that family that, not surprisingly, includes pumpkins, squashes and cucumbers. In fact, while most of the fruit we enjoy are the ovaries of the plant on which they ripen, the watermelon is most precisely the placental tissue of the plant speckled with seeds. This revelation I trust will in no way diminish your enjoyment of the pretty, unassuming fruit, I mean vegetable.
Archeological digs in India and Egypt show that the watermelon was cultivated as far back as 2500 BCE. Its cultivation spread along Mediterranean trade routes to Greece and Italy. It was already part of the Chinese way of life during the Sung Dynasty of the 10th century. Most American food historians seem to agree that the watermelon, along with sorghum, okra and other foods we consider commonplace today, migrated west with African slaves.
In Richard Cocks’, Diary of Japan, written in 1615, watermelon appears for the first time in the English language acknowledging a “present of 10 water millons”.
Watermelon love is wide spread and it is found in over 25 languages including: vattenmelon in Swedish, cocomero in Italian, sandia in Spanish, suika in Japanese and tarbuza in Hindi — should you find yourself traveling and have the desire. In the American south pickled watermelon rind is a long loved tradition said to have derived from Greece and the Middle East where it is still eaten as a “spoon” treat served with tea. The roasted, salted seeds are popular in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. On the streets of Madras, you can buy watermelon juice cooled with water melon juice ice cubes and seasoned with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. In Italy a cooling watermelon pudding is simply made and incorporates cinnamon, pistachios, and chocolate bits representing the seeds..
Many have waxed eloquent over watermelon. The great tenor, Enrico Caruso plainly proclaimed, “Its a good fruit, you eat, you wash your face.” Mark Twain, son of the south, given to grand hyperbole, said that the watermelon was “chief of the world’s luxuries, king by grace of God over all fruits of the earth.” There is even a line dance called the Watermelon Crawl. And in the halcyon days of the seventies Richard Brautigan wrote a lyrical depiction of a utopian heaven called, In Watermelon Sugar, that is listed among the 1000 books to read before you die. I think that none of this affection for the tuba of the fruit world is misplaced or exaggerated. How much do I enjoy its fragrant sweetness? Well, I shamelessly admit to buying bright green liquid soap, marketed for children, only because it is strongly aromatic of watermelon.
Watermelon, the icon of summer, is the definition of an unalloyed, universally loved, simple pleasure.
• Look for a firm melon between 10 and 30 lbs, between June and September, with a shiny skin and a pale yellow underbelly .
• Like pineapples, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, plums, dates, grapes, grapefruit, lemons, limes, mandarins, oranges,and cherries, watermelons ripen no further once they are picked.
• If the stem is on and well withered you may assume it is ripe.
• Want to take the mystery out of watermelon buying? Give up thumping and buy cuts. What you see, is what you get. And unless you intend on carving it into a boat, or other centerpiece worthy fruit sculpture, you can have perfection.
• And by all means eat them in season. A watermelon in January is borderline obscene and they just don’t taste right.
• Watermelons have no fat, no cholesterol, are a good source of vitamin C, and only 80 calories in every 2 cups of fruit.
• Freeze cubes of watermelon to make that special frozen tropical cocktail.
WRITING · RECIPES · TEACHING · PHOTOGRAPHY