Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Red, White and Watermelon (Originally Published July 1, 2001)

The Fourth of July: parades, picnics, patriotism, fireworks and of course watermelon. Yep, watermelon. The cool, juicy, treat of summer has, according to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, become the most consumed fruit at Fourth of July celebrations. But patriotic revelers aren’t the only ones who enjoy the sweet red melon.

People throughout the world have loved watermelon for centuries. Egyptians grew watermelons more than 5,000 years ago, decorating wall paintings with watermelon and depositing the seeds and leaves in the tombs of pharaohs. From Egypt watermelon's popularity grew as traders began selling seeds along Mediterranean trade routes. By the 10th century watermelon made its way into China, and by the 13th century the Moors introduced watermelon into southern Europe. European colonists and African slaves are credited with bringing watermelon to North America.

Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic grower of watermelons at his Monticello estate. Henry David Thoreau proudly grew large and juicy watermelons in Concord, Mass., and Mark Twain wrote in “Puddn’head Wilson,” “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.”

In fact watermelons have become a part of American culture. Ellen Ficklen in her book “Watermelon” documents the important role of watermelons in American popular culture. She reveals the numerous ways, including folk art, literature, advertising, merchandising, and the large number of annual summer watermelon festivals throughout the country, in which the watermelon is celebrated.

Because African slaves played an integral role in the dispersal of watermelon seeds throughout the south, the fruit has also became part of a stereotype often associated with rural African-Americans. Watermelons have thus figured as key symbols in the iconography of racism in the United States. Despite these negative connotations, watermelons continue to be important culinary gifts.

Modern varieties of the watermelon are derived from the native African vine Citrullus lanatus. Cultivated for thousands of years in the Nile Valley, this species still grows wild in the arid interior and supplies native people with water during drought seasons.

From this wild variety more than 500 hybrids have been developed and are grown worldwide. Each of these types are different, giving the consumer a wide range of sizes, shapes, and colors to choose from. Watermelons are generally divided into two categories, either the icebox or picnic varieties. The icebox melons are so called because their size, ranging from five to 15 pounds, allows them to fit more easily into the refrigerator. Picnic melons are larger, weighing anywhere from 15 to 50 pounds for the commercially available types. Yet, home gardeners have grown picnic melons in excess of 200 pounds. In 1991 Bill Rogerson of North Carolina won a place in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for his gigantic 279-pound watermelon, a record that still stands today.

Most Americans are familiar with the vivid reddish-pink flesh dotted with black seeds, but there are also white-, pink-, yellow- and orange-fleshed varieties, with or without seeds. Color, size and shape have little bearing on the flavor of the flesh between differing varieties. Seedless varieties are not truly seedless, but actually do contain tiny, white, edible immature seeds in lesser amounts than traditional watermelons.

The oddest variety though came to market two weeks ago in Japan. For the past 20 years several Japanese farmers have been working on a way to produce square watermelons. To produce this odd-shaped fruit, farmers incase immature fruit in glass cubes. As the fruit matures it’s confined in the container and when fully ripened the melon is a perfect cube. The Japanese believe this stackable fruit will be popular among confined urban dwellers of Tokyo and Osaka. At $83 (U.S. dollars) apiece I’m not so sure.

Whether round or square, red, white or yellow this year make watermelon a part of your Fourth of July celebrations.

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