A Watermelon of the Hindenburg Variety

Ben Franklin said, “Men and melons are hard to know.”

Selecting a good melon of any kind is not easy. Melons can be inscrutable about their inner lurkings. In my experience, the best melons of any kind seem to be the ones that LOOK like what they’re supposed to, like a magazine picture. Watermelons are picked ripe. They do not ripen once they’re picked. Eventually they will get soft and mushy inside, but they won’t ripen. The fresher the watermelon, the greener the stem. If the melon’s got an old, dried-out stem, it’s probably been around a while. A good watermelon should be shaped symmetrically and should be smooth: if the surface rises and falls in little hills and valleys, like the surface of the moon — sort of cottage-cheesy, the flesh will be sweet, but, though edible, will be slightly spongy and possibly stringy. Its skin should be neither too shiny nor too dull, should have a nice yellow to whitish-yellow underbelly and otherwise show fairly sharp markings. When patted or tapped, the melon should yield a deep, hollow sound — thock — not too hollow, though, because then it probably is hollow inside. Be sure to pick up the watermelon to tap it. Tapping it while it’s still on the table will simply allow you to gauge the hollowness of that part of the table. A melon that sounds dull when you tap it — thamp — is probably soft and mushy inside.

The flesh of the melon should have good red or pink color with no white or yellow strings or yellow color (unless it’s of a yellow flesh variety). The sweetest watermelons crack with a hollow sound when you first cut into them and may have some broken chunks or a slightly hollow heart. The sweetest part of any melon (honeydews and cantaloupes (muskmelons) included) is the heart. The closer you get to the rind and the ends, the more cucumber-like the melon will taste. So, if you’re serving melon balls to your guests, keep the portion from the heart for yourself…. Watermelons, muskmelons, honeydews, pumpkins, squashes and cucumbers are classified as cucurbits, all members of the cucurbitaceous or gourd family of plants.

You’ll find sweeter melons of all kinds during a dry growing season. Melons don’t like a lot of water, and those which get too much are watery and less sweet.

Watermelons grow in abundant varieties, shapes and sizes. Generally, they are riddled with large, black seeds. The seedless varieties have seeds, too; however, they are fewer and are small and white.

I encountered a watermelon of the Hindenburg variety one summer afternoon when I was working in an outdoor Florida farm market. The snowbirds had flown north. No customers were there; it was quiet. The surrounding farmland had grown into tall weeds and scrub. I was alone. It was hot, sticky — 97 degrees with corresponding humidity. Plumes of white fluffy clouds rose high in the sky, looking like great cream puffs behind which the giant lived at the top of the beanstalk. Indeed, soon I would hear the rumbling of the giant’s footsteps. A thunderstorm was building. I walked around the open store, beneath the leaky chickee roof, straightening and organizing the produce, checking for bruises and bad spots. One of the watermelons seemed oddly shaped. I stepped closer. This melon looked REALLY puffy. I touched it — gently. Soft. A soft spot. I touched it in another spot. SOFT. This one was SOFT ALL OVER. This one was Volatile. It … was … readytoEXPLODE. Yikes! I jumped back. I faced a dilemma. If I left this melon to itself, the gasses inside would build and build until FPLOOM!!! The farm market would suddenly resemble the back room of a butcher shop. If I picked up this burgeoning blimp, yes, even if I touched it, I feared I was in for a Vesuvial outburst spewing seeds, chunks and juice from here to Pompeii. So, was I going to carry this ticking time bomb to the trash? No way. A huge watermelon exploding in my arms — right in my face and all over my shirt, down my legs, splattering my shoes? I don’t think so.

I made a decision. I’d wait for Paul to return. He was my boss. He was a young guy, younger than I, a wiry Italian-American from Southern New Jersey farmland. He’d had more experience with these things than I. He’d know how to handle it. At the farm stand, Paul generally occupied himself by running around the store with the leaf blower. One day, we had a big pyramid of newly picked Georgia peaches displayed on a square table in the center of the store. They hadn’t been through the packing house, so they still had all their fuzz. “I hate peach fuzz,” said Paul. “I’m allergic to it. Watch this.” He fired up the blower and blew the fuzz off all the peaches. Yes, I’d wait for Paul.

An hour passed, then another. I made wide circles around the distended thing. I directed customers to detour through the other aisle. We were placed in a very unstable situation here. From behind the checkout counter I watched the melon grow ever more bulbous by the quarter hour. Finally Paul returned. I announced the munificent office I was bestowing upon him. I had seen the slaughterhouse appearance of the remnants and damage created by a watermelon unexpectedly exploding on the shelf, and when I had carried watermelons with soft spots to the trash, they generally dripped and sometimes spewed their insides, but none had actually full-on exploded in my arms.

Paul gingerly lifted the ballooning melon, gently cradling it in his arms. I couldn’t watch. I turned away as he carefully carried it the two hundred feet to the dumpster. It was around 6:00 in the evening and as I was getting ready to leave the market, the wind blew up, heavy black clouds raced in overhead, making the late afternoon black as night. Then the sky exploded. Big, round, fat drops shattered against the ground. Seeds of the storm. The giant must have been carrying furniture around, then thrusting it so it splintered, so fearsome was the sound of the thunder; ghastly white bare-branched trees and distended bushes burst like gargoyles upon the scene in the flash of fierce, jagged lightning and then just as quickly vanished. Driving home, I could barely find the road in the sudden tempest.

The next day I arrived at the farm to find pools of water flung across the gravel parking lot; and throughout the open market, tree limbs and palm fronds the giant storm had spewed across the ground. No watermelon seeds, though. The watermelon didn’t explode, Paul told me later.

–Samantha Mozart


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