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Food in the 'Hood

“What the Angels Eat”: The Watermelon — Part I

“The natives select them by striking one melon after another with a hatchet, and applying the tongue to the gashes.” The bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, whom the missionary David Livingstone observed in the 1850s, were choosing tsammes, the wild ancestors of the watermelon. A source of survival for the African foragers, the wandering gourd would emerge centuries later as a hot weather refreshment in America. Kin to squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and other members of the cucurbit family, a group of trailing vines, the watermelon sucks up water through its extensive root system.

 The melons, which still grow around desert oases and watering holes, burgeoned after heavy rains. “In years when more than the usual quantity of rain falls, vast tracts of the country are literally covered with these melons,” Livingston remarked. The wild melons, about the size of grapefruit and both sweet and bitter, were saviors in the parched land. The drought-resistant gourds prospered, when other vegetables would wilt. The water-saturated melon (90 percent of its weight) quenched the bushmen’s thirst and sustained them on their nomadic treks. An auspicious marker, a melon vine in the desert was usually a sign that water was nearby.

These “botanical canteens,” as they have been called, have long served a wide range of needs of the hunter-gatherers. The watermelon itself is easily stored or can be cut into strips, which are hung in trees to dry and saved for food to feed both tribe members and livestock. Watermelons also made handy drinking and eating cups and other containers.

 The seeds were as vital as the flesh. After roasting, they could be nibbled on or ground into flour or processed for cooking oil. The leaves too did not go to waste. After cooking, they made tasty greens.

North of the Kalahari in the Nile Valley was another seedbed of the watermelon. By 3000 BC, gourds were being plucked from its soil. In their exile, the Israelites yearned for the “cucumbers and melons” they had relished in Egypt. Paintings found in Egyptian tombs honored the revered fruit. Watermelon seeds and leaves uncovered in these chambers were presumably left to provide nourishment in the afterlife.

 Years later, the 13th century Arabic writer Al Qazwiri boasted that the watermelon of Aswan was so huge that a camel could only carry two. Egypt’s melon seeds were so prized that they were traded, scholar Andrew Watson notes, to late medieval Europe. The watermelon remains a popular fruit today in Egyptian households. For breakfast, many families enjoy an invigorating plate of watermelon and feta cheese.

By 800 AD, the melon had migrated from Africa, probably along the east coast trade routes, to a new home in northwest India. Here the rough fruit was domesticated, “ennobled,” to use Andrew Watson’s expression. Under the guidance of Indian farmers, the fruit was transformed into a larger gourd with sweeter, more succulent flesh.

Persia, which traded with India, was the next stop on the watermelon’s journey. Hinduwannah, one of its Persian names, meant “melon of India.” One of the country’s most cherished fruits, it can be a simple repast or the basis of a glorious salad. Watermelon, dates, and pistachios, sprinkled with rosewater combine to make one such delicacy.

As Persia pushed into central Asia, the Turkish-speaking peoples of the region, which now includes many of the Soviet Union’s former republics, adopted the watermelon. Melons thrived in the area’s long, hot summers and withstood the dry, desert climate. Today traders from the former republics, especially Azerbaijan, travel to Russia during the summer months to market their produce. Along the highway outside Moscow, traders in rows of stands peddle watermelons. Inside Moscow, the streets are thronged with purveyors.

 The watermelon business can be perilous. Police harass vendors who are also the victims of (often unfounded) rumors about the safety of their wares. The Moscow Times in 1998 reported one striking incident of watermelon hysteria: “A young police sergeant caused panic July 17 when he thought he had been poisoned by silver metal buried in a melon’s pink flesh. Emergency teams and police rushed to his apartment and confiscated the watermelon as evidence, while newspapers hurried to call it a terrorist act. But it was a false alarm. Doctors confirmed the next day that the policeman had been poisoned by liquid mercury found on the kitchen table.”

Young toughs look for prey among the merchants. “When a group of drunk kids come and demand a melon in the middle of the night, I just tell my workers to hand it over,” an Azeri vendor told the Moscow Times. In an especially ugly assault in St. Petersburg in 2002, a band of about 20 skinheads, some carrying metal bars, mauled and killed a 53-year-old trader; they videotaped their attack.

Derided by some Russians for its central Asian connection, the watermelon is mostly an object of adulation. When they visit Tashkent or other capitals in the region, Muscovites love to stock up on watermelons. To prevent excess weight on their airplanes, it is said, Aeroflot carriers leaving central Asia require passengers to discard watermelons from their overstuffed baggage.

Watermelons, which Russians pickle, make into beer, and snack on with white bread, are considered cleansing. “It gets rid of all the junk that is in your organism — all the junk that accumulates over the months,” security guard Vladamir Speransky told New York Times reporter Clifford Levy. Some Russian sanatoriums even prescribe a watermelon diet for their patients.

Russian children, Levy points out, are introduced very early to the watermelon. In reading classes, instructors use the word for the fruit – arbuz — to teach the first word in the Russian alphabet.<ENDMARK>  

Note: “What the Angels Eat,” the title of this piece, comes from Mark Twain’s description of the true Southern watermelon in Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Next month, in Part II, I will follow the watermelon’s passage to China, Spain, and the Americas.

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Watering Holes

Slaviya (2424 18th St., NW, tel., 464-2100). The Adams Morgan nightclub and restaurant specializing in eastern European food, offers customers the “watermelon twist,” a watermelon martini with a splash of lime and cranberry juice.

Taqueria Distrito Federal (3463 14th St., NW) This Columbia Heights eatery sells a watermelon (sandia) soda made by Jarrito, a popular Mexican brand.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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