Shutterstock / Alena Haurylik
It’s summer. The air is thick and still with sunshine. Smoke from the barbecue dances into the bright sky, fading into the heat. The lowering of the grill lid’s harsh blackness brings the scene to an abrupt close, signaling the arrival of the long-awaited finale to this cookout. Your hands, thick with sweat and anticipation, reach towards the vibrant red. With the first bite comes salvation — a wave of cool, invigorating wetness. The sweet, clean crunch sends you to another place, and suddenly the air and the smells and the heat are not oppressive at all. The hero behind an unassuming green rind has brought yet another barbeque to a satisfying close.
Though usually associated with American summertime ritual, watermelon was first cultivated in Egypt nearly 5,000 years ago. Its seeds have been recovered in tombs of ancient pharaohs, supposedly buried with them to nourish them through their journey to the afterlife. Early voyagers used the melon, composed mostly of water, as our name for it suggests, to stay hydrated across desert terrain, and sold its valued seeds along African trade routes. In the tenth century, watermelon made its way to China on merchant ships. The Moors carried the fruit to Europe by the 1300s and it landed on Central American shores 200 years later. Shortly after that, watermelon traveled up the Mississippi Valley. Its name first appeared in English, as "water millions," in 1615, in the diary of English merchant in Japan.
Today, the USDA estimates that the average American eats more than 15 pounds of watermelon a year. Women over 60, Southerners, and suburbanites are more likely to exceed this (somewhat feeble, in my opinion) amount. Summertime state fairs seek to find the heaviest, roundest, most awe-inspiring watermelons their region has to offer and challenge unassuming contestants to try their skill at seed-spitting. Texas native Lee Wheelis set a high bar for competition in 1989 with his world-record spit of 69 feet 9 1/8 inches. Such lighthearted displays of community and togetherness have come to define the fruit, transforming it into a symbol of unremitting joy for adults and children alike.
Through my younger years, I harbored a deep fascination for my faux-kitchenette set. Stylishly outfitted with synthetic pots, pans, and food of all sorts, my little kitchen was a world of creative possibility. However, as my mother tells me, my eye always gravitated towards the same triangular hunk of plastic — the watermelon slice. I paired the slice with every meal offering, whether it was sweet or savory, salty or sour. Clearly, I harbored some sort of intense love for watermelon’s appearance. It’s easy to understand why. Its striking red and green hues create an edible dichotomy. With interspersed black seeds piercing its flaky flesh, the fruit’s pattern is universally recognizable. A full watermelon is the size of a small child, making its handling an undertaking that requires effort and care.The matted sheen of its rind protects the contents inside, but if dropped, the melon bursts into an abstract display of juice and splatter. Beauty and risk. These are things that made the watermelon so special to me.
As I grew older, my connection to the fruit slowly began its shift away from my collection of plastic trinkets. It traveled a couple of states over from the basement in my Connecticut home to a front porch in the Detroit suburbs. Every summer, I spent a few weeks visiting my mom’s sister and her family in Michigan. My aunt and I have always been close, brought together by a common love for corny jokes, summer storms, and, you guessed it, watermelon. We’d pass our days relaxing on her outside stoop, eating until we had unearthed every last bit of sweetness, always wary of leaving any red behind on the rind.
Once we’d finished one melon, we’d go inside to cut another. I’d stand at eye level with the counter, eagerly anticipating the moment the green would be parted to expose the red belly underneath. The promise of that subtle, sweet, cool crunch would encourage us to devour this one even quicker than the last. I loved those Michigan summers and that porch and that watermelon. The fruit lends itself to such memories of togetherness. After all, one rarely sees someone eating a slice of it alone.The matted sheen of its rind protects the contents inside, but if dropped, the melon bursts into an abstract display of juice and splatter. Beauty and risk. These are things that made the watermelon so special to me.
Although it’s comforting to trust that watermelon will forever maintain such ties to social reminiscence and community, fundamental dangers lie ahead for the fruit. At this point, we’ve all seen it — that vacant, famished limpness of cubed, seedless watermelon. Year-round, this imposter sits in plastic containers that line the shelves of groceries and delis and airport kiosks and megastores. The only companion it requires is a plastic fork, maybe a napkin or two. Children are opening their lunchboxes to find the dull pink squares, no longer privy to the age-old hallway rumor that swallowing a black seed inevitably spurs the growth of a full watermelon in the tummy. Consumers have been baited by the pre-packaged fruit’s promise of ease, willing to compromise taste and integrity for convenience.
The paradoxical shift began some 50 years ago when growers realized that crossing a 22-chromosome watermelon plant with a 44-chromosome one yields a sterile, seedless offspring. Since first being introduced on the market, these seedless varieties have become the norm, and today fewer than 16 percent of watermelons purchased in American grocery stores bear seeds.
The demise of the common watermelon has not stopped there. The latest craze in this transformative fruiting saga targets the melon’s spherical shape. In an attempt to increase shipping efficiency, nearly a decade ago, Japanese producers invented the square watermelon. The cube is formed by placing a newly sprouted seed into a box for the duration of its growing period — a method that is now somehow marketed as consumer DIY. (There is a slightly disturbing WikiHow guide to the process.)
Dramatic agricultural changes have coincided with shifts in consumer preferences. In a New York Times piece, South Carolina grower Bradley O’Neal describes how much more rewarding the market work used to be. Speaking from his Fairfax property, Coosaw Farms, O’Neal details his father and grandfather’s daily experiences loading their seeded, fresh melons onto trains passing through town en route to terminal markets in cities like New York. Since Bradley has taken over the business, the watermelon industry has suffered from America’s obsession with what he calls “perfect produce.” People reject watermelons with even the slightest scratch or blemish, which retailers then return to farms at the grower’s cost. The price of melons has remained relatively steady over the years, even though production costs have skyrocketed. Seeded melons are selling wholesale for about eight cents a pound plus shipping. That’s a pound that costs O’Neal around seven cents to produce. “Now we’ve got so much invested,” he says. “It’s scary.”
In Americans’ pursuit for a visually pleasing, easily consumed produce, they have forgotten what makes watermelon so distinct. It is a fruit that has no right to be packaged, processed, cleaned up, or tampered with. It is not meant to be eaten by one individual, but shared among a community, or at least an aunt and her niece on a front step. In the deepest depths of the ripest summertime watermelon remains a reminder that everyone is united by something, even if it’s just a love for the deep red that sits inside the cool green.