Watermelon: a Silly and Serious Slice of Summer

Who'll ever forget those summer days at Camp Stomp-a-tomp-a-womp-a-nomp-a-noag? Rainy nights in a tent, and ghost stories by the fire as the smoke slowly curled into the night.

Special as these moments were, nothing beat the annual ritual of the camp's equivalent to the greased-pig chase, once popular at rodeos in the West.

After wolfing down another meal of "mystery meat" and "bug juice," everyone would head to the beach and work themselves into a lather, struggling to rescue a Crisco-slathered watermelon from the murky depths of the lake.

The reward: a juicy slice of their rescued treasure (after a hot, soapy shower).

For all that silliness, watermelon does have a more serious side. From Lubbock, Texas, to Kennebunkport, Maine, Americans are finding creative ways to make this vegetable (yes, it is) a tasty, as well as entertaining, part of summer.

Cousin of the humble cucumber, and kin to the gourd, Citrullus Lanatus is being devoured in record quantity.

"People are buying watermelon because it's fun," says William Watson, director of the National Watermelon Promotion Board. "When people buy watermelon they think of the fun times they had as children. I can remember as a kid in Texas spending hours just spitting seeds."

After a dip in watermelon sales during the 1980s, farmers and marketers are proclaiming a veritable coup d' aquamelon. The '90s have seen Americans push the envelope of watermelon consumption, downing an incredible 17.4 pounds per person last year.

The convenient (but decidedly less fun) seedless watermelon, developed in Japan, has attracted much of the attention. Purchases of seedless varieties now make up 40 percent of sales.

And chefs have picked up the pace. From Appalachia to the pine forests of the Pacific Northwest, new recipes are being developed. A bounty of American cuisine including smoothies, barbecue sauce, tuna casserole, salads, and salsa (see below) - now incorporate it.

In earlier generations when a 20-pound watermelon provided a day's worth of family entertainment, most people practiced seed spitting as a cultural experience. They preferred the frugality of using the whole watermelon, roasting the seeds they didin't spit, carving lovely vases and sea-worthy fruit-salad boats out of the shell, and making luscious pickles from the rind.

At the vanguard of watermelon experimentation is a new generation of Americans enjoying petite, round melons of the seedless variety. These seed apostates are adding it to fruit salads, or buying it pre-sliced as a midday repaste.

For perhaps the first time this century, watermelon is considered hip, not only because of its taste, but because it is a welcome no-fat, low-calorie, refreshing snack.

Most varieties are not difficult to find, yet experts believe the process of selecting the perfect melon remains uniquely individual.

"Everyone has their own particular recipe for picking out a watermelon. Some thump them, some roll them on the floor, others shake them over their heads," says Mr. Watson.

"Then there's the test where you place a piece of broom straw on top of the watermelon. If it moves parallel over the middle of the fruit, you know it's ripe."

While selecting the melon du jour, many advocates lament that the average shopper knows little of the vegetable's storied history - steeped in cultural lore and moments of high drama.

Harvested over 5,000 years ago by Egyptian visionaries, it was brought to present-day Italy by Moors during the 13th century.

African slaves and European colonists later introduced it to America. Here it was grown to a level of preeminent sweetness by Colonial planters, including Thomas Jefferson.

It was in the 20th century, however, that the watermelon achieved its greatest fame: In 1990, Bob Carson of Arlington, Tenn., attained the world record when his home-grown behemoth rolled in at 262 pounds.

Later that year, another record bit the dust when Jason Schayot of DeLeon, Texas, became an overnight folk legend after he spat a watermelon seed an enviable 75 feet, 2 inches!

As a man who has spent much of his life growing and selling these "August hams," Mr. Dickerson appreciates the practical, mundane responsibilities lost in the razzmatazz and hoopla of record-breaking.

Nevertheless, the daily grind of producing a crop in no way diminishes the benefits of a life greatly devoted to watermelon.

"I've always had a love for the land and things that grow," he says, "For me, growing watermelon is important and rewarding because eating is something we all have to do," says Dickerson.

And pound for pound, it's also worth its weight in good times and memories.

Watermelon Salsa

1/4 cup orange marmalade

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup seeded, finely minced jalapeno peppers

2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 to 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups seeded watermelon, cut in 1/2-inch cubes

1 cup chopped Walla-Walla, Vidalia, or other mild onion

1 cup chopped orange sections

In large bowl, stir together orange marmalade, cilantro, jalapeo peppers, vinegar, garlic and salt. Add watermelon, onion, and orange, toss gently until coated.

Chill at least one hour before serving.

Serve with tortilla chips or as a topping for fish or chicken. Serves 6 to 8.

Based on a recipe from the National Watermelon Promotion Board

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