Kim O'Donnel is a freelance food writer and the author of the Meat Lovers' Meatless Cookbook and Meat Lovers' Meatless Celebrations.
Just a few weeks remain before summer cedes to fall (the equinox is Sept. 22), which makes this August baby a little blue around the edges. Intellectually, I know the sun can’t stay out late night after night, but even in my increasing years, breaking up with summer remains so very hard to do, just like Neil Sedaka sang it.
One way to keep the lovin' feeling alive is to stay present, particularly with produce. And if there’s one crop that epitomizes the sultry essence of summer, it’s the watermelon. As apples and winter squash make their pre-autumn debut, Mother Nature, god bless her, stops the rush hour traffic and allows the last bit of sun-kissed, lycopene-rich hunks of burning love to pass Go and keep on keeping on.
Seasonal melancholy begone; there’s melon to thwack and slurp on, and those last golden days of summer to savor.
A Brief History
It’s widely believed that the watermelon first came on the scene in the savannahs of southern Africa — possibly in Namibia — where it was foraged by the Khoi and San tribes of the Kalahari. It was first cultivated around 2000 B.C. in ancient Egypt, where it appears on wall paintings and the seeds and leaves were placed in tombs.
Through trade routes, it made its way to India, China and Europe, first by the Moors in the 10th century. It came to the New World via the transatlantic slave trade, with the first known colonial cultivation in Massachusetts in 1629. Along with okra and black-eyed peas, the watermelon is inextricably linked to the African American story and its central role in African foodways. As African culinary scholar Jessica Harris writes in High on the Hog, the watermelon was used as a symbol to stereotype African Americans: "some of the most virulently racist images of African Americans produced in the post-Civil War era involve African Americans and the fruit."
- Luling, Texas, a small town just south of Austin, is home to the Watermelon Thump, an annual festival held in June. Celebrating its 59th year, the Thump includes a parade, a beauty queen and a trio of competitions — watermelon growing, eating and seed spitting.
- Who knew seed spitting would inspire world records? The longest distance a seed has traveled is 68 feet, 9 1/8 inches, a Guinness World Record set at the 1989 Thump.
- There’s a world record for watermelon largesse, too. Set in 2005 at the watermelon festival in Hope, Arkansas, the largest-ever watermelon weighed in at a whopping 268.8 pounds.
- Oklahoma loves the watermelon so much it decided in 2007 to recognized it as the official state vegetable, which is a little odd, given that it’s a fruit (although related to vine vegetables such as cucumber and squash).
- The watermelon inspired Mark Twain; in his 1894 novel Puddn'head Wilson, he wrote: "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."
Botanically, the watermelon is known as Citrullus lanatus, and is part of the larger cucurbitaceae family, which makes it a relative of the cucumber and the squash (both summer and winter).
It is one of the most widely cultivated crops in the world, with China leading the charge for more than two decades. The US ranks fourth in production, despite being grown in 44 states.
Its flesh comes in a variety of colors – from the familiar red and pink to yellow, green and even white. It is both highly dependent on honeybee pollination and drought resistant.
Environmental Impact and Seasonality
As mentioned earlier, the watermelon is a fruit of summer, peaking from July (depending on where you live) to September. Its great reach across the country makes the watermelon a local foodshed darling, giving us little reason to consider jet-fueled melons from the southern hemisphere.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Guide to Produce, watermelon ranks low on the pesticide scale, earning a spot on its“Clean 15” list. (See our veggie rule of thumb, below*.)
Watermelon has had its share of food safety scares; earlier this year, a salmonella outbreak in Europe was linked to sliced watermelon imported from Brazil.
The watermelon is aptly named, at 92 percent water — and not surprisingly, has a long legacy as a thirst quencher, even for livestock. One cup of watermelon flesh is just 46 calories, yet it is a good source of Vitamins A, B and C, as well as potassium and magnesium. But the most compelling reason to slurp on watermelon is its bevy of disease-fighting antioxidants (namely beta carotene and lycopene), found in its pigmented flesh. In fact, the watermelon beats out the tomato in the superpower lycopene contest.
In other wellness areas, the watermelon may help boost the libido and enhance erectile function. An amino acid called citrulline may be responsible for helping increased blood flow. Mother Nature’s Viagra? Maybe.
Watermelon seeds are not only edible; they're a rich source of protein and fat (8 grams and 13 grams for 1 ounce, respectively), as well as iron and zinc, and are commonly eaten in China and parts of Africa. The seeds are dried and ground into flour in parts of India.
What to Look for
Pick it up. It should be heavy. Knock on it like the front door. Do you hear a THWUMP? That means it’s ripe.
The underside (aka "soil side") should be slightly yellowish, too. It means the fruit has been spending time in the dirt getting ripe. And the exterior should be hard to the touch, never soft or squishy.
What to Do With It
What can’t you do with watermelon? The flesh can be cut into cubes and skewered, shaped into balls for salad and cut into any cookie cutter shape. The rind may be pickled or candied, the seeds roasted and ground. Puree it for juice, cocktails, a twist on gazpacho or an icy granita.
As a savory playmate, watermelon loves feta cheese, red onions and bitter greens like arugula. For a ying yang adventure, sprinkle it with cayenne, sea salt and a squeeze of lime.
And yes, Virginia, there is Grilled Watermelon.
A whole, uncut watermelon can be stored at room temperature. Before cutting, wash the exterior well, and make sure to thoroughly clean your cutting surface.
Once cut open, store the fruit in the refrigerator. The larger the pieces, the longer it will keep.
Marinated Watermelon Steak with Pink Peppercorn Rub
(KOD note: Even without the peppercorns, this dish is a kick in the pants)
From “Fire It Up” by Andrew Schloss and David Joachim
1 crosswise center-cut slice of a large watermelon, about 11/2 inches thick
3/4 cup light rum
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons pink peppercorns, crushed
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons honey
Remove the green and white rind from the watermelon, and then cut crosswise into quarters to make four wedge-shaped steaks.
Combine the rum, butter and mint in a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag. Grate the zest from half of the lime into the bag, then squeeze in all of the juice. Add a pinch of salt and the watermelon steaks. Press out the air, seal and gently to blend. Let stand at warm room temperature (at least 72°F) for 1 to 2 hours.
Light a grill for indirect medium heat, about 350°F.
Combine the crushed pink peppercorns, sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small dish. Remove the watermelon from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels; reserve the marinade. Sprinkle the rub all over the steaks.
Brush the grill grate and coat with oil. Grill the watermelon directly over the heat until grill-marked, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Move the watermelon away from the heat, close the lid and cook until very tender and slightly shrunken, 30 to 40 minutes.
Boil the marinade in a small saucepan until reduced to 1/3 cup, about 10 minutes. Stir in the honey and drizzle over the steaks.
Makes 4 servings
*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them — agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)