Growing up, the best part of having a birthday in July was instead of a cake, I got to go to my grandfather's watermelon patch and pick my own watermelon instead. He had a patch in Big Sandy, Texas, and it was our tradition that I could run up and down the rows searching for the perfect birthday melon. I love watermelon season.
I have had all kinds of melons -- red meat, yellow meat, orange meat, seedless. They are all delicious but do taste different from each other. I've done a tasting of six kinds so you can pick just the one you want. I will even tell you how to pick the ripest one in the patch.
We collected five Texas melons and one California organic, seedless variety. We found a Hempstead Sweet Red, Charleston Grey, Hempstead Sweet Yellow, Gustine Red and a Gustine Yellow.
Our most inexperienced melon collector also found a Black Diamond variety, but alas, it was rotten. More about picking ripe ones later. We tasted all melons at room temperature, with nothing added to them and from the heart of the melon.
We began with the Hempstead Sweet Yellow melon. When cut open, it smelled slightly sweet but mostly green -- not an unripe green but a fresh, summery green. The meat was light orange in color with average-size seeds.
It was not sweet and in fact had a more sour flavor, some saying an off taste. The flesh was somewhat mealy. As a rule, orange- and yellow-meated melons tend not to be as sweet as red-meated melons.
Our next melon was the Hempstead Sweet Red. It smelled sugary-sweet when cut open and had a bright-red color with larger seeds than the yellow. Its flesh was firm and juicy. Some tasters said they thought it had a sweet, squash-like aftertaste.
This melon had the typical "watermelon" taste and would be a good go-to melon. It would hold up well in salads or eaten on its own.
Melon number three was the Charleston Grey. When we cut it open, there was a slightly earthy smell but not a strong watermelon or sugar smell. It was deep pink in color and had a softer texture than the first two melons.
The seeds are giant and would not be good for a spitting contest. There was a slight chemical taste, but it was very subtle. We did note that you need to wear a bathing suit when eating this one, it is so juicy.
We moved on to the Gustine melons. First, the yellow one. It had a sweet, squashy smell -- almost pumpkin-like -- and its color was lemony yellow with a crunchy texture. The seeds were very small and white. It tasted like a very sweet pumpkin but with watermelon texture. This melon ended up being the favorite of everyone except me. I'm a die-hard red-melon girl, and the stripers are my favorite.
The Gustine Red melon had a lightly sweet smell and a deep red color. It was much sweeter than the yellow and had firmer flesh. Its seeds were also small and a pale brown color. Some found it to have a tart finish. This would make a good salad melon.
Our final tasting was the seedless, organic melon from California, as this is what is widely available in the supermarkets. The other melons are found at farmers' markets and roadside stands.
The California melon smelled like watermelon rind when cut open. It was a dark pink color and very juicy but in a watery sense, not like sugary watermelon juice. It was sweet but didn't taste sun-kissed. It was described as tasting like it had been picked early and truck-ripened.
As with many fruits, you want melons to feel heavy for their size -- that means lots of sweet watermelon juice. But heavy can also mean it's not ripe and you are feeling the weight of a very thick rind.
The solution: the infamous thump. You've got to thump a melon to hear its ripeness. It should sound hollow, like thumping a tub of water.
But hollow can also mean overripe or rotted if the weight doesn't match up. A light-feeling, hollow-sounding melon is no good.
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If you find a melon heavy for its size and hollow-sounding when thumped, it is perfect. I should know -- I spent every summer going up and down the rows of my grandfather's patch listening, thumping and learning the Zen of the perfectly ripe melon.
Watermelons have about another month of seasonal ripeness, so get out there and start thumping.