Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is one of my favorite made up, stupidly hokey national holidays! Where’s the Hallmark card for this one??!!! Ok, so maybe I am being just a little dramatic, but come on…there’s very little that beats that plush dark pink flesh dripping juices down your chin on a hot summer day. I mean it’s cool, refreshing, sweet, light and is visually stunning with a mélange of greens, yellows, pinks and even black and white. Fact is, when I see watermelon season approaching, I think of summer, childhood innocence, relaxation and even being carefree. I always equate the fruit with my childhood, as it was always a treat to have watermelon on picnics by the lake that was cooled with the lake water itself. As I grew up and learned more about food, I realized how little I knew about this magical orb and its history, agricultural details, uses other than just dessert and even really how to pick the perfect one out. I figure on this magnificent holiday; I would share what I have learned.
So there are theories that this fruit has its original roots in southern Africa with seeds being found throughout the Nile Valley and also seen at Twelfth Dynasty sites as well as King Tut’s tomb. There are records of watermelons being cultivated in the 7th century in India (yeah buddy!) and by the 10th century, in China, which surprisingly is the world’s largest watermelon producer as of today! Makes me wonder why we don’t see more of it in Chinese cooking. Maybe I’m not looking close enough…hmm…blog idea? As usual, the Europeans wanted in on anything they know nothing about and of course, instead of asking, they invade and steal seeds and by the 17th century, watermelon was considered a minor crop. Why only minor? Well, watermelon really only grows well in warmer climates, Europe only has a handful of countries with the proper soil and climate to grow these beauties…HA! That’s what you get for stealing. Now, when Europe can’t do something properly, they get all mad and colonize so they can get all the credit, which is exactly what they did. The Dutch brought it over to their colonies in South America and the Spanish brought the fruit to Florida. Meanwhile, the Africans brought it over on slave ships and cultivated the fruit in the South as well. Native Americans had already been cultivating this fruit in the Mississippi Valley since the 1650s. So, at this point, it’s like the United Nations of fruit. Who cares who got the credit for this delicacy, I’m just glad it’s here! Ok, that’s enough history for today, let’s move on to anatomy.
First things first, watermelons DO NOT grow on trees! I don’t even know why I get asked that all the time, no joke. I mean, can you even imagine a tree with a bunch of melons on it??? Talk about low hanging fruit!! LOL!!!!
Melons grow in large leaf patches with vine like tendrils that slowly wrap themselves around anything, very similar to how Ursula moves in The Little Mermaid…slow, stealthy and all encompassing. The fruit itself comes in a variety of colors both external and internal. The rinds can be anything from dark green to a mottled yellow and green mix. The flesh is speckled with pips (seeds) set in a variety of colors from pink to yellow to even white. I know I might sound a bit elementary telling you that a watermelon in pink and green, BUT, I have heard someone tell someone else that a yellow-fleshed watermelon is just one that isn’t ripe yet. REALLY.
OK, now that we have the nitty gritty out of the way, let’s talk about how to actually pick the perfect watermelon. How many of you have heard the term “pinching the melons”??? Yeah, most of us have. You don’t pinch a fruit, you pinch a plant; which is basically removing the main stem to promote two new stems, which in turn, promotes growth of that plant to produce more fruit…think about when you pluck out gray hairs, two more grow in its place, right? A watermelon should be picked based on how it feels, the “splotch” and how it sounds. Yeah, you heard me. Let me explain.
- Watermelons should be heavy, think of it as water weight. When you pick up a watermelon, it should feel heavier than it looks. The more water weight, the juicier it is, which is a sign of ripeness. If you can easily throw it like a shot put, it most likely should be used as just that.
- This is one of those fruits that thrives on its imperfections. Most of us would never pick a fruit that has a “bruise” or flat spot. Watermelons should have a creamy yellow splotch on its flatter side. A perfectly symmetrical melon is a HUGE NO NO. One that has been sitting on the ground for its proper maturation time, has a flat side and also has a creamy yellow splotch that kinda looks like a baby spit up. Also, the longer that melon was able to sit in its natural environment to ripen, you will see these vein like striations stemming from the splotch like an amoeba. So really, the more hideous the rind, the better the melon.
- Sound…yes, spank that melon. Don’t pinch it, just give it a good thump on the underbelly of that melon. The perfect fruit will have a hollow sound that reverberates. If it sounds more like a thud, put down that dud! Sorry, that one couldn’t be helped.
So, now you have the perfect fruit in your hands, what do you do with it aside from eat it as it is? Well, the obvious answers are make a salad, infuse water, make cocktails with the juice, slushies, ice cubes and even infuse the whole thing with a bottle of vodka! Now, here are some other not so conventional uses for watermelon:
- The Rind. You can eat it, it’s not just there to protect that succulent flesh. Pickling the rind is one of the best ways to not waste an ounce of that fruit. Pickled watermelon rind is awesome. It’s no different than anything else you pickle. A few spices, vinegar and some hot water makes for a new take on a bloody mary garnish, chopped fine for a relish on hotdogs or even just a snack on its own. The best part is that you get to keep a little part of summer in your kitchen all winter, which in Chicago is a necessity.
- The Flesh. You don’t just have to eat this thing as amazing as it may be. Watermelons are high in electrolytes from its biological water makeup, as well beta carotene and a plethora of other vitamins and minerals. It’s naturally refreshing and is a natural detoxifying agent for your kidneys. With all that said, watermelon is the perfect organic skin care system. If you blend a few slices and add honey and sugar, you get the most hydrating exfoliating face scrub. Skip the sugar and just add honey and you have a toner. Add some yogurt to it and you have the best and cheapest face mask you could ask for. This is actually perfect as the summer days start dwindling down, it’s perfect to cool off and condition your sun parched skin for the Fall.
- The Seeds. So, for all my paleo and gluten-free friends out there, watermelon seed flour is a thing! It’s not common as newer seedless varieties of the fruit make it hard to produce. However, if you happen to pick up one of those normal melons that are filled with seeds, pick them out, dry them, roast them and grind them! Not gonna lie though, unless you are dedicated, it takes some work to get a decent amount to use in any given recipe asking for flour. But hey, it’s there for the taking if you want it! Here’s a great breakfast recipe to get you started! Oh, and for those of you that had someone scare the crap out of you if you swallowed a seed…just kyboshed that theory.
Alright, I’m not going to brow beat this beautiful creature to the point where you know more about the fruit that you are over it. The thing with watermelon is that it’s so quintessential. It’s everywhere from beer to a scent of a lip gloss to being the perfect descriptor for wine notes, especially rosé! I mean I have shirts that are labeled “watermelon” pink. So without further ado, raise your glass of wine, beer, juice, a slice or the whole freaking melon and let’s celebrate this immaculate piece of perfection!!