As a kid in Texas, gnawing on a hunk of watermelon rind might as well have been my summer job. I marked long days slurping down chunks of bright red melon, craning to spit the fat seeds back across the yard, with my feet dangling in the pool and the Texas sun breathing down my neck. Now, some 25 years later, the challenge of tracking down a tender, seeded and truly sweet watermelon – not just one with a precious inch-deep sugary valley – is getting hard for me to swallow.
I still live in watermelon country, mind you. Texas produces almost 20% of the watermelons grown in the U.S. Even so, buying watermelon too often means one of three things: a prepackaged tub of cubed (and waterlogged) melon; a pre-cut, oddly crunchy quarter or half melon trapped under plastic wrap; or a round mini-melon, whose Lilliputian size won’t inconvenience your refrigerator’s other contents.
For a few hungry months each summer, that all changes in central Texas, when a short drive unlocks back roads and byways peppered with parked pick-up trucks spilling over with life-sized, oblong watermelons for sale. They pop up at farmers markets, too, like San Antonio’s Pearl Farmers Market, under the shadow of the retired Pearl Brewery, where I bought my first melon of the season this year from Jada Baker. Baker’s 60-year old father, Bay Laxson, is a watermelon farmer and the owner of Orange Blossom Farm in Carrizo Springs, about two hours southwest of San Antonio and thirty miles or so from the Mexican border as the crow flies.
Laxson has been growing watermelons since 1974 and swears by organic growing practices and old-fashioned varieties like Crimson Sweet, Desert King (what he calls “a yellow-meat” variety) and Jubilee. “With the pests, I’ve learned over the years just to ignore them,” says Laxson, his feet planted firmly in a field crawling with robust watermelon vines. “They’ll take a few plants out when they’re young – and you can find them out there now – but they really don’t do any damage to speak of.”
Seeds of flavor
Laxson’s watermelons teem with fat obsidian seeds, and their ruby red flesh is fragrant and honey-sweet, all the way to the rind. Broken-into halves pool with water even before you cut a slice, and eating the melon in chunks means a full inch of pink juice in the bottom of the bowl to sip on when you’re done. Out of the more than 4 billion pounds of watermelon that will be consumed in the U.S. this year, Orange Blossom Farm will grow about 100,000 pounds of it, all seeded, selling to central Texans at farmers markets and retailers like Whole Foods from mid-June to late July.
Seedless varieties now comprise about 87% of all watermelons sold in the U.S.; somewhere between the invention of the Internet and the crashing economy, seed spitting became a chore. The abundantly sweet and locally grown seeded varieties many of us grew up with down south are disappearing from stores all together. “Most traditional retail outlets are switching over to seedless,” remarks Jason Hanselman, industry affairs associate for the National Watermelon Promotion Board, but farmers like Laxson won’t be making the switch. “My dad says they aren’t real melons,” Baker tells me with a chuckle, referring to Laxson’s disdain for seedless varieties. “He says you have to have a seed to grow one, don’t you?”
Al fresco assembly line
Out in the field, Laxson’s son, Jason, stoops to cut a watermelon from the vine, then straightens up, launching it with an underhanded toss to Carlos Garza, a longtime family friend. Garza throws the watermelon to Laxson, who eyes it like a scientist, looking for signs of melon worms or decay. He scrapes the dirt off of its belly with a pocketknife, nods his approval and hands it to his wife, JoAnn. She tosses it to Jason’s girlfriend, Jessica Saye, who loads it into the back of the pickup, and they start the chain again. They’ll go on like this for hours. This is their second truckload of the morning, and a flatbed trailer teetering with melons, some weighing upwards of 40 pounds, sits at the end of the row, too. It’s coming up on 10:30 a.m., and the temperature edges past 90 degrees.
In the field, Bay Laxson drops a fat melon onto the rust-colored dirt, burying his knife into a cracked crevice to coax it open. “A snack, go on,” he motions to me, cutting the flesh into misshapen cubes. His wife and I gobble the chunks; I pass one to Jessica in the truck. “I haven’t had any all morning. I can’t believe it,” she laughs. Warmed by the sun, what I can’t catch of the sweet melon’s juice drips onto my shoes, as hot as soup. The average American eats about 15 pounds of watermelon each year. This summer, I plan to triple that number, and I’ll gladly spit the seeds out of every bite.
Top: Cream of the crop
Slide show: Watermelon vine at Orange Blossom Farm; Farmer Bay Laxson in the field; The hand-off from Laxson to his wife, JoAnn; Jessica Saye loads melons for transport; the truck’s full, ready for market; a broken melon in the field means the wasps feast; the morning‘s harvest.
Credits: All images, including videos, by Liz Pearson