Watermelon: The Southern Comfort Food
Watermelon has a very high water content and can be used to quench thirst. A cold, refreshing watermelon is also a great summertime treat. Hot summer nights and watermelons just seem to go together. Short of a skinny dip in the pond, there's nothing that'll cool you off any better than a slice of icy-cold watermelon.

I'm told watermelons were native to Africa. Their seeds were brought to the U.S. by slaves who taught the land owners in the new world how to grow them. In former times, African-Americans were often depicted in racist caricatures as being inordinately fond of watermelon. But ask any southerner—black or white—and they'll tell you that down here, we all love watermelon.

I've heard there are over 500 varieties. Approximately two hundred grow in the United States. All fall into one of four groups.

Icebox melons are round. They have either yellow or red flesh. They weigh between five and fifteen pounds. Yellow-fleshed melons are either oval or oblong with variegated stripes. They weigh-in between ten and thirty pounds. Picnic melons are oval or circular in shape. They have yellow or red flesh. Some picnic varieties have stripes. Others don't. They can become quite large and weigh anywhere from fifteen to forty-five pounds. Last is the seedless category. Either round or oblong, they all have bold green stripes.

These watermelons range in weight between fifteen and twenty-five pounds. Watermelons seem to grow best where the climate is warm and the days are long. Under such conditions, a vine will produce its first melons within sixty-days of planting. The crop is usually ready to begin harvesting within 90 days. A healthy vine will yield fruit several more times throughout a growing season.

In 2002, the US harvested 3,920 million pounds of watermelon. Georgia was fourth in the nation with 516 million pounds. The top fifteen producers in the world produced 178,451 million pounds. With so much watermelon available, I'm surprised that we still have wars and so many disagreements among people. I guess some folks aren't sharing. That's too bad. It's hard to be angry and take things too seriously when you have watermelon juice running down your chin and dripping off your face.

In the old neighborhood where I grew-up, a watermelon cutting brought family, friends and neighbors closer together. The watermelon was the centerpiece of summertime social activity. The first watermelon cutting of the season was a special event. One that required planning, foresight and someone with a knowledge of melons.

Sometimes they were available at the chain supermarkets even early in the season. Aside from being far too expensive, these varieties were generally picked too green to be good. If you had mastered the art of thumping—my Dad was the only one in our family who had—you might be safe buying one at the Georgia Farmers Market. However, before mid-July, even there he'd thump a lot of melons before he found just the right one.

By far, the best place to buy a watermelon during the month of June was at a roadside stand. Not the ones that were the forerunners of today's convenience stores. I'm talking about a wooden shed by the side of the road. One where the farmer himself sold corn, okra, peppers, tomatoes —and watermelon. A handwritten sign would say, "What you buy this afternoon was growing in the field this morning." Why, this gentleman would be insulted if you dared thump one of his melons. They were that good.

Dad would chat a little and barter a lot. When the price was right, he'd load a couple of prize melons into the trunk of his old Ford and head for home. On the way, he'd stop for a bag or two of chipped ice from the neighborhood icehouse. Once home, we'd ice 'em down real good.

For me, the hardest part was yet to come. The waiting. It could take five or six hours or more to chill down those big boys. While we waited—some more patiently than others—Mom would be on the phone, inviting nearby family and a few friends to share the experience.

I'm not sure why we never ate watermelon during the daytime. But we didn't. Once the sun had gone down and the lightning bugs were flying about, Dad would say, "Ready?"

Mom would grab a hand full of utensils, the salt, a stack of paper napkins and we'd all go outside. She'd cover the picnic table with an old newspaper, then light citronella candles to keep the bugs away. Everyone would gather around the big zinc tub filled with ice.

My dad would reach into the cold water, and come-out with the biggest, greenest, prettiest watermelon I'd ever seen. On a humid night in Georgia, once it was out of the tub, it would quickly frost over. He'd find the big carving knife hidden in the kitchen drawer—the one saved for holidays and special occasions. The slicing of the melon was almost ceremonial. The first cut sliced the melon in half, revealing a bright red inside speckled with dark brown or black seeds. "Ahh," everyone said. Their mouths were watering.

The first bite was crunchy cold, sweet and wonderful. So was the last.

Watermelon is refreshing but not filling. It's healthy. It hydrates and cleanses the body and soul. It makes you feel good all over. It helps you sleep—well, at least until you have to pee. In that regard, watermelon could be called the passion fruit—perhaps the reason many southerners have so many kids. You know, you wake up and have to go to the bathroom...you're wide-awake and so is she. The rest is history...named Bobbie-Sue, Billy-Joe, Mary-Beth and Sally-Jean.

Now a few Yankee friends of mine have compared eating watermelon to eating cold, wet Styrofoam with seeds. Can you imagine? Regardless, watermelon nurtures love, family values and good will among men.

It's too bad it doesn't grow in the Middle East. Maybe if Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon had shared a big slice, hostilities between Israel and Palestine might have ceased. Maybe an old fashioned, southern-style watermelon cutting would help the Shiites, the Sunis, Baathist and Kurds get along too.

I know George Bush likes watermelon. Last year, Texas produced 770 million pounds. I'll wager old George had his share.


After retirement from a career in advertising and marketing, Burch has authored a number of published essays and magazine articles, in addition to a full-length novel. He uses his Blog site--http://southernauthor.blog-city.com/index.cfm--to make his popular "Op Eds" available to a growing list of visitors and subscribers.

©Copyright 2006 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.