National Watermelon Day is today, August 3. However, most of us have been enjoying its sweet, refreshing flavor for the past month or two already. Watermelon loves the heat so August is a great time to head to the grocery store or local produce stand to pick up a ripe beauty. Yes, it's easier to buy pre-cut wedges wrapped in plastic, but watermelon suffers sitting for days in the refrigerated section until some pimply teenager is told by the manager to mark it down for clearance. By then, all the juice has drained out and the watermelon is a sad, sorry sight. Plus, it's much more expensive.
Many people choose packaged watermelon for convenience but for the best flavor and value, it pays to buy a whole melon. However, picking out a watermelon can be intimidating. Some experts poo-poo the thump technique while others swear by it. However, most learned watermelon aficionados agree that the true indicator of ripeness is the yellow "belly" spot on the underside of the melon. The larger and creamier the color, the more likely it has been left to ripen on the vine. And the shiny, pretty melon is not the one to choose. The duller, heavier fruits are usually the sweetest, according to Texas A&M Today.
Once the melon has been chosen and hauled home, careful consideration must be given to how it will be cut and distributed. In my family, swathes of newspaper were laid out to prevent the inevitable juice overflow. Nowadays, many homes don't have newspapers, so dishtowels or paper towels are the next best thing. Then, the person in charge of cutting must decide between wedges or triangles. This is usually determined by the ages of the melon eaters involved. Little hands fare better with triangles. Teens and adults can handle good-sized wedges.
Washing the watermelon is a good idea as well. It may have been thumped numerous times by numerous knuckles before ending up on your kitchen counter. A sharp knife is a must and care should be taken. The deep red color should come from the melon, not your fingers.
Don't be surprised if you find yourself being assailed with memories as you cut into the green rind and the aroma of the melon takes you back to your childhood. When I was a child, getting a watermelon was a celebratory event. On occasion, my father would come home from work with a melon as a treat. However, the best watermelon adventures were when we would be driving down the road and the eagle eyes of my little brothers and myself would spot a melon truck on the side of the road. (We were aces at spotting the words boudin, tamales and Gulf shrimp as well.) Three bouncing heads would attack my father with "Daddy, Daddy! Can we get a watermelon? Please, please, please!" Then, there would be the sound of the blinker and the crunching gravel, adding to the anticipation.
We would watch as my dad walked up to the farmer, always shaking his hand and engaging in a little small talk. He was like the father from A Christmas Story who was determined to get a good deal on a Christmas tree. I imagined my father and the farmer tossing aside the smaller melons and saying "Hell, that ain't no watermelon!"
Sometimes, my father returned with just one melon, but often, he would have two because they always seemed to be two for $5. If we were extra lucky, one would be the more conventional striped, oval type while the other would be a huge ebony globe, the sweet Black Diamond.
When we returned home, the newspaper was laid out and my mother went to work. My father got the first wedge and the biggest. He would take his prize, along with the salt shaker, and sit in front of the television to watch a sports game. We children were given wedges and sent outside to avoid a watermelon disaster. My brothers argued over whose wedge was the biggest as one gnawed his piece straight through the red flesh and white rind ending just at the green skin.
I also have watermelon memories from my grandparents' house in Louisiana. When we would visit in the summer, there were multitudes of cousins to play with, half-wild ponies to ride and red dirt mud puddles in which to get into trouble.
My grandfather, or Paw Paw as we called him, had an acre he cultivated and he seemed to pick a special new crop every year. When Jimmy Carter became president, he even tried peanuts. He always had tomatoes and peas. But the best years were when he experimented with different watermelons. Some were red, others were a deep orange with an almost overwhelming sugary sweetness.
He was enormously proud of his efforts. When we were called to the outdoor picnic table for the big reveal, cousins from a number of the houses on Sugartown Road would all come, too. We were hosed down first to remove the granny beads around our necks and the grime underneath our fingernails. Boys were relieved of their shirts, if they were wearing one. We all perched, waiting for our slice. No wedges here. It had to feed a crowd so triangles were passed around. If there were two melons ripe at the same time, we knew there would be seconds.
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The watermelon was more than a fruit, then. It was a shared experience. Adults sat on the swing or porch steps, languidly talking about subjects we didn't understand. Seeds stuck to bare baby bellies, while older kids convinced the younger ones that the seed they just swallowed would grow a watermelon inside of them. Juice trickled down little arms onto the crushed oyster shell driveway at our feet. Afterwards, we would be hosed off again and sent off to more mischief, our stomachs full of sweet melon, though not so full that we didn't sneak a few fresh figs off the neighbor's tree. They were related to us anyway.
Those are the thoughts that come flooding back when I cut into a watermelon. It reminds me of a time when everyone I loved was still alive. When the adults in my life were infallible. When a watermelon was a symbol of familial togetherness. My own kids have no idea what a big deal it used to be.
Now, I slice up the watermelon neatly into rindless chunks and put it in the refrigerator for my family to snack on. It's just not the same. Maybe in honor of National Watermelon Day we will sit outside, enjoying sweet slices of watermelon and spitting seeds into the yard. During these uncertain times, we need some simple joys.