In Praise of Watermelon: Origins, Memories, Recipes

Watermelon may be awkward to grow, store and eat, but this delicious summer fruit deserves recognition. We offer some tips for how to grow and harvest watermelon, plus recipes for Watermelon Sorbet and Watermelon Soup.

| July/August 1990

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    Is watermelon—easily and wholeheartedly enjoyed during childhood—embarrassing to adult sensibilities?
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    Although we in the United States associate watermelon with Southern culture and climate, some new varieties prefer cooler climes and shorter seasons.

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The White House won't comment. Many Americans act as if it's something to hide. And the rest of the world thinks it's irrelevant. I'm talking about watermelon: cold, icy watermelon, thirst-quenching watermelon, gift of the gods, joy of unbridled childhood, pride of strutting youth. But as maturity and responsibility roll across our lives, our deep, abiding love for watermelon goes underground, sinks into the private psyche, the realm of quiet reverie, seldom to be acknowledged again—except, of course, on the Fourth of July, the one day we allow ourselves to celebrate its glories. Briefly and brilliantly visible on this national holiday, watermelon is normally exiled from polite society for the rest of the year. It may, in fact, be our last great taboo.

It is, first of all, awkward to grow, store and eat. Its unruly vines, some reaching 15 feet in length, sprawl across the rational plans and geometrical designs of tidy gardeners. Its bulky weight defeats all attempts at grace and poise. Hauling a watermelon from garden to kitchen is often a rite of passage for small boys. In the refrigerator, it subverts logic and efficiency, its oblong and globular shapes being uniquely ill-adapted for the flat shelves and right angles of modern storage. Its watery pulp is messy and sticky, and its ubiquitous seeds force the would-be eater to think carefully about the logistics of consumption and disposal. In short, watermelon is vaguely embarrassing to adult sensibilities.

The lives of virtually all Americans are tightly intertwined with watermelon memories. A friend in her seventies recalls packing her father's icehouse in Richmond, Virginia, with the first green fruits of summer. Watermelon chunks provided ammunition in the daily wars waged against her brother. Fraternity boys still pour quarts of gin into holes drilled in watermelons and allow the mushy concoction that results to marinate until drinkable.

Now that the Cold War belongs to history, Americans finally have the chance to take a fresh look at themselves. Our defense of freedom was long and arduous, but it will have been for naught unless we feel free to talk openly about watermelon. Almost alone among common foods, watermelon comes heavily burdened with connotations of race and class. It is, by itself, a dense, complex system of signs and meanings. No great nation can long endure when its best citizens fear to reveal their deepest yearnings. The time has come to bring this worthy fruit out of the closet.

Unlike President Bush, I harbor no grudge against broccoli. I am saddened, however, by his inadvertent insult to watermelons. He talks about broccoli ad nauseam but fails to call attention to the exemplary qualities of our secret passion. His silence speaks volumes about the plight of the watermelon.

In hopes of discovering that the oversight was a mistake, I called the press office at the White House for an official statement on Citrullus vulgaris. Does the president like watermelon? Will he admit it?

7/13/2012 5:02:11 PM

I am 60 year old, southern by 8 generations, white, lean toward liberal and am addicted to Watermelon. I refuse to eat any not grown in our area, make myself wait preferably for Crimson Sweet, like it crunchy and full of seeds, seedless are mealy and tasteless to me. The 2 of us can go through a huge one in a week, treat itl like a veggie on the table, cut into big chunks in a big bowl and have at it, makes a great snack to keep on counter during hot day, grab a piece and enjoy. Don't forget, it is really good for you, remember our vegetalbe and fruit colors-more color more nutritious.

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