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

Part I told the story of the watermelon in its African homeland, its cultivation in India, and its journey to Central Asia, some of whose former Soviet republics today ship the fruit to enthusiastic buyers in Russia.

Now the world’s largest grower of watermelons, China has only been cultivating them since the 12th century. A gift from its neighbors in Central Asia, the “Western melon” developed an enthusiastic following. “It is large and round like a gourd, and in color like green jade,” the 13th century physician Wu Zu wrote glowingly.

The Chinese have found ingenious uses for the fruit. Cut in half, the gourd has served as a container for steaming food. The rind has been pickled and also stir-fried. More than any other part of the watermelon, the seeds remain the greatest obsession of the Chinese. Some are so avid for them that they save the seeds, then throw the gourd away. To satisfy the addiction, varieties were specially bred to have abundant seeds and minimal flesh.

Roasted and salted, the seeds are eagerly nibbled. So all consuming is this pastime, food writer Amy Goldman says, that many Chinese have hollows in their teeth from years of prying open the seeds.

Watermelon seeds were shared affectionately on social and festive occasions. Hostesses have traditionally offered the seeds as gifts to guests. Customers congregating at teahouses and restaurants savored them. During the New Year’s holiday, watermelon seeds were exchanged festively among friends and family.

Chin Tsing Fan, a well-born 17th century lady, recounted one joyful gathering: “Playfully we break and extract the melon-seeds and arrange them into Buddhist symbols; for amusements we impress interlocking circles with the bottoms of our cups.”

Abbé Hue, a 19th century missionary who traveled through China, observed the watermelon habit condescendingly: “These watermelon seeds are indeed a treasure of cheap amusement for the three hundred million inhabitants of the Celestial Empire. They are an object of daily consumption . . . and it is amusing to see these extraordinary people munching these seeds before their meals to test the condition of their stomach and appetite. Their long and pointed nails are then extremely useful. The skill and rapidity with which they strip off the hard shell to obtain the tiny kernel must be seen to be appreciated. A troop of squirrels or apes could not manoeuvre more dexterously.”

Their reputed medical properties enhanced the appeal of watermelons. One example of its powers impressed Hun Hao, a 12th century official: “In P’o-yan there lived a man who for a long time was afflicted with a disease of the eyes. Dried pieces of water-melon were applied to them and caused him relief, for the reason that cold is a property of this fruit.”

The incorrigible watermelon enthusiasts kept up their habits in the modern era. During World War II, food writer Greg McNamee recounts, General Chiang Kai-shek demanded that U.S. General Joe Stilwell supply each of his soldiers with a watermelon before they fought.

Several years ago, while exploring Boston’s Chinatown, I discovered a surprising item on the menu of the China Pearl restaurant. The eatery’s watermelon juice was popular among émigrés from the hot climates of Hong Kong and South China. Nearby, I watched black vendors pulling a cart loaded down with the gourds along the neighborhood’s main street.

The watermelon moved west. The Moors, who transplanted spinach, pomegranates, eggplant, and other crops to Spain during their occupation of the country between 711 and 1492, also grew watermelons. The Spanish name, sandia, comes from an Arabic word that refers to the Indian origins of the fruit. Already growing in Seville, the gourd caught the eye of D’Ibn-Al-Awam, an Arabic writer in that city. Among the melons he observed were two that resemble the watermelon: “The melon of India . . . includes two varieties; the one has a black seed and the rind of this one is very dark green passing to black; the other has a pure red seed and the green color of its rind passes to yellow.”

As the Islamic empire spread, the watermelon was carried to new regions. Candied watermelon and a nutty watermelon pudding, Sicilian delights, are undoubtedly legacies of the Muslim conquest of that island.

The climate of most of Western Europe, however, was not congenial for the fruit. Some Mediterranean households experimented with the import, but it lacked commercial promise. Dazzled by the wide range of black, brown, white, red, and speckled gourds, European botanists viewed the watermelon mostly as a curiosity.

The watermelon gained a foothold in the Americas as a result of early Spanish exploration. By 1576, settlers in Florida were harvesting the fruit. In Mexico and in Spanish territories in the American southwest, the watermelon was also planted. Native Americans, who more than likely acquired it from Spanish traders and missionaries, were particularly fond of the new arrival. Seeds were passed from tribe to tribe. Less than a century later, the watermelon had reached Native American communities from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi Valley.

Why were the Native Americans so drawn to the watermelon? The fruit kept well and favored the long, hot summers so prevalent in North America. Most important, it probably reminded them of squash, a mainstay of their gardens, which was cultivated quite similarly.

English settlers soon adopted the plant. By the early 1600s, the fields of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were filled with gourds. A report from 1634 noted that farmers in Maryland were trying out “Musk-mellons, Water-Mellons, and Cow-cumbers.” In 1793 Thomas Jefferson planted a “Neapolitan watermelon” in his garden. His watermelons, Jefferson wrote, were superior to those sold in Paris’s markets. In France, “there is not enough sun to ripen them and give them flavour.”

Americans were also devising new ways to exploit the fruit. Seventeenth century Swedish geographer Peter Lindstrom found that watermelons along the Delaware river were being pressed to make cider. Other colonists, food historian William Woys Weaver reports, were boiling them to make an “ersatz molasses.”

Cooks concocted a tangy condiment, watermelon pickle, made from cooking the white pieces of the rind in a sugar syrup infused with cloves and cinnamon and sharpened with vinegar. Its fans considered it a “sweet meat.” The new country’s first cookbook, American Cooking, written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796, included a recipe for the pickle. This was the only watermelon dish included in early American cookbooks.

Slaves brought to the South from Africa were already conversant with watermelons. Watermelon seeds were one of a variety of items, including sesame seeds and black-eyed peas, carried in the slave ships. Planted in rows in the plantation fields, the fruit was conveniently located for laborers who wanted to slake their thirst.

Because of the great affection blacks had for them, watermelons became a common feature of mocking stereotypes of African-Americans. For most people, however, the watermelon was the epitome of unadulterated summertime enjoyment. The watermelon, Mark Twain wrote in Pudd’nhead Wilson, was the loftiest pleasure imaginable. “The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.”

The mammoth watermelons of old, big enough to feed a large family or picnic gathering, are fast disappearing, made obsolete by breeders, marketers, and consumers with new preferences. New varieties are displacing the familiar heavy, oblong melons with thick rinds. A changing culture, many merchandisers are convinced, requires a different kind of watermelon. “People don’t eat watermelon out of hand like they used to,” Robert Schueller, public relations director of California distributor Melissa’s Produce, told the Washington Post’s Jane Black.

Smaller, “personal” watermelons are more suited to the country’s demographics. “Most people, particularly the urban people, would rather have a small one,” Terry Kirkpatrick, a watermelon expert at the University of Arkansas, commented in an interview with New York Times reporter Kim Severson.

Nostalgic watermelon lovers lament the loss of the fruit’s thick rind. For this reason it is harder these days, watermelon historian Ellen Ficklen says, to make watermelon pickle. “The growers want the thinnest possible rind that will protect the melon when it’s shipped a long distance.”

Seedless watermelons, which constitute more than half of today’s market, are increasingly in vogue. Seeds seem to be just one more nuisance for the harried consumer. Robbed of the qualities that endeared it to cultures, old and modern, the watermelon is in danger of losing its verve.<ENDMARK>

Note: Watermelon, a volume written by Ellen Ficklen, is a short, fascinating account of the fruit. It is available inexpensively from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.


Watering Holes

Cuba Libre (801 9th St., NW; tel., 408-1600). The Latin restaurant’s bar prepares a sandito mojito, the minty Cuban cocktail, flavored with watermelon juice.

Next Stop Produce at Dupont Circle Sunday Fresh Farm Market (20th St. bet. Mass. Ave. & Q St.). It’s the end of the season for farm owner Heinz Thomet’s seeded and seedless watermelons from his southern Maryland homestead. The delightful fruits have intriguing names like Prosperity, Golden Crown, and Sweet Orchid.