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How the watermelon got its slurp

June 25, 2003|Charles Perry and Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writers

In these, the watermelon days of summer, it's easy to think nature made this refreshing fruit just to slake our thirst and thrill kids who like to make a mess of their faces.

But its story is a long and curious one. Like the human race, the watermelon originated in Africa many thousands of years ago and has since developed in eccentric ways. There's nothing quite like it. Whether buying it, eating it straight from the rind (as most of us do) or creating light and refreshing dishes with it, you can't take it for granted. You've got to know it.

Originally domesticated in tropical Africa from a stringy, unpromising, sometimes bitter thing no bigger than a grapefruit, it had developed into the big boy we recognize by about 2000 BC, when it first showed up in Egyptian art.

But in recent centuries it has become the American melon. Sure, it spread throughout Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages, but not until the African slave trade brought it here did it really find an eager welcome. We Americans are the great watermelon fanciers of the world, the ones who've developed most of the improved varieties now grown.

Watermelons are an integral part of our summer folklore, and it makes sense that the biggest watermelon-eating season of the year is the week of July 4. There are more than 40 annual watermelon festivals around this country, meaning that there are more than 40 American towns that consider themselves the world capitals of watermelon.

Typically, these festivals feature exuberant contests for seed-spitting and growing the biggest watermelon. Curiously, though, plant breeders are now reversing gear on exactly these virtues.

On one hand, they're racing to develop smaller melons. The traditional oblong "picnic" size is 17 to 20 pounds, and the familiar Calsweet variety can easily run 30 pounds, but the big push now is for melons under 15 pounds -- called "icebox" watermelons, because they're small enough to go in the refrigerator without cutting -- and even cantaloupe-sized "lunchbox" or "one-meal" watermelons weighing under 5 pounds.

On the other hand, in 1988 growers introduced seedless varieties, beginning here in California. Of course, they're not truly seedless -- they just have relatively few, relatively puny seeds. This makes them more difficult to propagate than seeded watermelons, so they're somewhat more expensive.

But they now rule the California and Arizona watermelon industry, the third largest in the country; 90% of our state's watermelons are seedless. "California's lifestyle lends itself to convenience foods," observes Dana Abercrombie of the California-Arizona Watermelon Assn. "Thus, seedless, smaller melons, the most popular size for the past 10 years being a 14- to 16-pound size, about the size of a basketball."

Still, seedless varieties have to have seeded watermelons inter-planted with them so they'll pollinate -- a row of Royal Sweet, say, for every few rows of seedless Millionaire (light green with thick, dark stripes) or Laurel (stripes of about equal size). So traditionalists, let not your hearts be troubled -- no matter how many seedless watermelons are grown, seeded watermelons will always be with us.

And that's a good thing, because the watermelon's tasty seed has always been one of its attractions. Toasted watermelon seeds are much appreciated in China, and some varieties have been specially bred for seeds (Wanli boasts a minimum of 400 seeds per melon). The original African wild watermelon, known by such names as tsama and egusi-ibara, is still being grown for its seeds, which are ground and used for thickening soups and stews throughout West Africa. Watermelon seed oil is also used for frying there.

A peculiar thing about watermelons is that they are rarely sold by variety. They're rated on sweetness and crisp texture (neither mealy nor mushy), and little is made of distinctive aroma. "There aren't the nuances in flavor in watermelon that there are in [other] melons," says Amy Goldman, author of "Melons for the Passionate Grower." "The differences are extremely subtle."

Growers have developed more than 300 watermelon varieties, mostly to make the best of particular local growing conditions. Often a variety is said to be a "type" -- to resemble some old favorite. If you see a picnic-sized watermelon with a light-green rind and thin, dark-green stripes, that's probably a Calsweet -- or a Calsweet type, adapted to some particular climate. A dark-green rind with rather erratic, broken, lighter stripes suggests a Sangria or, if the melon has a blockier shape, a Fiesta.

Even farmers markets have not featured many watermelon varieties so far. One grower that raises specialty watermelons is Weiser Farms, which sells in 20 Southland farmers markets. Alex Weiser tends to offer his melons from Lucerne Valley and Tehachapi in August and September, when the commercial crop from the Sacramento Valley is winding down.

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