I first tasted watermelon at an afternoon Kaffeeklatsch at Ernst and Minna Kallenberg’s home. They lived in a simple 3-room Classic Cottage along what was once the Old Comfort Road. They were an elderly couple who had moved “into town” from Grapetown. They became my adoptive grandparents, and they had a Kaffeeklatsch mid-morning and mid-afternoon, but watermelon was reserved for summer afternoons. I was about four when I first slipped through fences and followed a trail to their humble home. In mid-summers, their garden’s Black Diamonds began to ripen. They kept a few cool ones under wet burlap sacks in the shade of their windmill’s towering water tank. Ernst would select and bring one into their kitchen. Then, seated on his side of their table, I watched him cut it with as much anticipation as one would have watching the carving of a Thanksgiving turkey. Sprinkled with salt, the taste of that home-grown watermelon was memorable!
Watermelons are native to Africa. Some seeds found in prehistoric Libya date back to 3500 BC., and they were cultivated by the Egyptians well before 2000 BC. Their refreshing taste spread around the Mediterranean and to China between 900 and 1100 AD. Quite remarkedly they first entered Europe via the Moorish invasion of Spain. In 1158 they were being grown in Seville, where Simon Fischer studied abroad for a year. While their cultivation never became important to Southern Europeans, the new world was quite a different story.
African slaves likely introduced melons to the Americas. Spanish settlers were growing them in Florida in 1576. They reached Brazil by 1613 and Massachusetts a short time later. American Indians began growing them and by 1650 they were found in Peru. An English captain, James Cook introduced watermelons to Hawaii. A century later, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, devised the two-part naming for classifying all lifeforms, including watermelons—Citrullus lanatus.
Today watermelons are available all year, but the best tasting are those that ripen mid-June through late August. Adolf and Christine Schneider grew some of the biggest watermelons I ever sold at our roadside stand—many in excess of 80 lbs. I requested more! Americans, I discovered, had a passion for things “big”. They wanted big peaches, too! Many families left das Peach Haus with a melon so large that I knew it was going to make a memory for that family to long remember.
Americans consumed 14.3 pounds of watermelon per person in 2020 which ranks 6th in consumption behind bananas, apples, strawberries, grapes, and oranges. (Peaches rank 9th.) Total annual consumption of watermelon averages about 2 ½ million tons. Believe it or not, the Japanese are now growing cubic melons by using metal and glass boxes making them assume a square shape and great for stacking compactly!
Watermelons are up to 92% water. Like the tomato they are considered both a fruit and a vegetable. Their fiber content makes them an amazing fruit for losing weight. Perhaps more importantly, watermelons have more lycopene than any other fresh fruit or vegetable. Lycopene is an antioxidant linked to decreased risk of cancer, heart disease and age-related eye disorders. They are also a good source to reduce inflammation and neutralize free radicals. They help regulate nerves, muscles, and reduce risks caused by high-acid diets—namely, meat, eggs, and diary. Watermelon is also a great natural diuretic without straining one’s kidneys.
Improved varieties were developed mainly in the New World. By 1822 melon size averaged only about 20 lbs. Today, 99 lbs. is possible. The Carolina Cross holds the world’s record at 351 lbs. However, Sugar Baby is the best known. The Charleston Gray is an elongated fruit with a pale green, marbled skin. Crimson Sweet is another favorite. Striped varieties are also popular and widespread. Most have pink or red flesh, although yellow is gaining popularity. Seeds can also be eaten. The Chinese have become fond of them preferring black seeds with their outer coating removed.
Consumers are now demanding smaller watermelons and I have even seen some at our local HEB marketed as a “personal watermelon”. Some researchers hint that someday an apple-like variety with a thin, edible skin will be available. Ugh! FYI, those seedless watermelons developed in 1939 by Japanese scientist now total about 85% of sales in the U.S.
At Fischer & Wieser’s Tha Stand, we are constantly asked if a watermelon is ripe. Not being a grower, we simply guarantee satisfaction and a full refund. We’re likely batting 99.44% satisfaction after 53 years! A melon should be firm, and its bottom should be yellow according to some. Others suggest thumping—listening for a resonant sound. Measuring sugar requires a refractometer. Basically 3 cups watermelon yields about 1 oz sugar.
Incidentally, I used to polish the watermelons I displayed. Their skin can be buffed to a beautiful shine—much like that of a shoe. I am sure that practice has fallen by the wayside since I am no longer on the daily staff – I should check on that.
1 ½ oz watermelon juice (1 cup watermelon blended and strained)
1 oz vodka
½ cup blackberries
½ cup raspberries
1 lemon wedge
Muddle berries and add to martini glass.
Mix other ingredients, shake with ice and pour over the muddled berries.
Small ripe watermelon
Remove rind from one small watermelon.
Chop into cubes.
Blend until smooth.
Use a fine mesh sieve to remove particles.
To every 3 cups watermelon juice add:
½ cup lime juice
1 cup tequila
½ cup ice
Mix and serve in chilled glass.