When summer rolls around, my thoughts inevitably turn to watermelon — where to get them, how to pick them, and how to store them. I come by my obsession with watermelon honestly. My family on both sides has grown watermelons for generations.
My great-grandfather “Pop” Turner used to grow an acre of watermelon for his personal use on his farm in Virginia. That’s a lot of watermelon for one man. But Pop was a watermelon connoisseur, and I love the thought of him roaming through his watermelon patch down by the river searching for the perfect specimen.
When he thought he’d found a good one, he’d cut a chunk out of the watermelon with his pocket knife and taste it. If the watermelon didn’t suit him, he’d toss the unworthy melon into the river, and try again. This might seem excessive, perhaps even an inexcusable waste by today’s standards, but my parents remind me that farm luxuries are different from the luxuries in which we city folk indulge. Growing an acre of watermelons required only a small investment of time and money for a farmer who owned a bit of land. As Pop used to say, “It costs me nothing.”
Finding the perfect melon
For those of us without a spare acre of land at our disposal, we must either eat the few precious watermelons we grow in our limited garden space or buy them from our local farmers market or grocery store. My daughters beg me to buy watermelons as soon as they appear in the grocery store, which is usually in early June.
Knowing that most of these melons aren’t locally grown, I hold out until a few days before Fourth of July, when I start to see melons that are grown in the U.S., if not in my own community. In Southern California where I live, the best locally-grown watermelons start to appear in my farmers market in late July and August, but it’s still possible to discover a delicious watermelon sooner if you enter grocery-store territory.
I have my own criteria for choosing watermelon, but this season I thought I’d consult a watermelon grower to see how my criteria stack up against an expert opinion. After talking to Sarah Nolan, CSA Coordinator of South Central Farmers’ Cooperative, I’ve realized that I’m pretty much on target, with a few notable exceptions.
Choosing a watermelon
1. Don’t buy a watermelon before summer is in full swing. Sarah recommends buying watermelon that was harvested “during summer’s peak,” because watermelons need heat and sun to grow well. “Peak” of course will vary from region to region. July 1 is my personal choice, mostly because I love having watermelon for Fourth of July even if it’s not yet at the summit of perfection.
2. Buy watermelons that are as locally grown as possible. It’s good to buy locally-grown produce for a variety of reasons. I think it’s especially important for watermelon because buying locally increases the chances of getting an adequately vine-ripened melon.
3. Consider what you’re willing to sacrifice for a seedless melon: Like most people, I like seedless watermelon because they’re easier to eat. But given a choice, I’ll buy a locally-grown watermelon with seeds before I buy a seedless variety that traveled a longer distance to get to me.
4. Buy a large watermelon. Sarah suggests that bigger watermelons are not necessarily better and that “a good watermelon depends on variety, location it was grown, and time spent on the vine.” But because watermelon is usually sold by the pound, I prefer a high flesh-to-rind ratio to make sure I get my money’s worth.
5. Buy a melon that’s heavy for its size. I like a melon that’s sweet and juicy, so the heavier it is, the more likely it is to have a high water content.
6. Look for a “field spot.” Watermelon often has a white or yellow patch on the bottom side called a field spot. It’s a sign that the watermelon has been allowed to ripen on the vine. Sarah says it’s not necessary for a melon to have a field spot to be good, but it’s worth looking for.
7. Thump the watermelon and listen for a deep echoing sound. According to Sarah, you want a watermelon that “sounds like a drum when you pat it with your hand. If it has a dull thud, that means it will likely be mealy and either too ripe or harvested too early.”
8. Never buy a cut watermelon. Before I became a Master Food Preserver, I was somewhat more relaxed on this point. Now I steadfastly refuse to purchase a cut watermelon. If you don’t wash the watermelon before you cut it, any bacteria that existed on the outside of the melon will be transferred to the flesh on the interior. Unless you were present when the melon was cut, you cannot know if proper food safety guidelines were followed. The melon also will go bad more quickly after it’s cut.
Storing leftover watermelon
Unless you’re having a large party, it’s difficult to eat a watermelon in one sitting. I never refrigerate a watermelon before I cut it, but once it’s cut I’ll chop the amount I think I can eat within the next 24 hours into wedges and store them in a glass container in the refrigerator. I’ll leave the rest of the melon uncut and cover the exposed flesh with aluminum foil before putting it in the fridge. I eat watermelon at every meal until it is gone.
A final note of caution
There’s always risk associated with choosing the perfect watermelon. In spite of careful selection, sometimes you’ll get a lousy watermelon. Remember that an occasional failure is part of the adventure — and the pleasure — of eating watermelon.
Simple Watermelon Salad
Serves 2 to 3 people
Make this salad just before you’re ready to serve it because the liquid from the watermelon will turn the goat cheese into a slimy mess if it sits around too long. You’ll see that the ingredient quantities are small because I don’t like to have leftovers, but the recipe doubles and triples well.
4 cups freshly cut watermelon — chopped into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons mint chiffonade (finely sliced), plus several extra whole leaves for garnish
⅓ cup fresh salted goat cheese
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1. Place watermelon cubes into a medium sized bowl.
2. Add apple cider vinegar and mint chiffonade and stir gently to combine.
3. Top with crumbled goat cheese and a few whole mint leaves for garnish.
4. Serve immediately.
Note: Unless it’s a really hot summer day, I like this salad best when the watermelon is at room temperature.
I make my own goat cheese, which is remarkably simple to do, but if you buy goat cheese make sure it is as fresh as possible and does not contain any additional herbs or spices besides salt.
I infuse my apple cider vinegar with blackberries, but plain apple cider vinegar is just fine. You can also substitute freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice for the apple cider vinegar, but I rarely find good citrus when watermelons are at their best so I don’t often make that substitution. I do, however, make my own blackberry-infused vinegar.
Photo: Sliced watermelon. Credit: Susan Lutz
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