An Epic Watermelon Day

Remember watermelon seed spitting contests? I know, it's hard to. Because if you're part of my generation, watermelons have been seedless for nearly half our lives.

But I do have dozens of memories of sitting hip to hip with my grubby-kneed sibs on the edge of the back deck hunched over slices of melon so big our faces were lost in them. I remember coming up for air and spitting seeds as the juices dripped down our wrists toward our elbows. I especially remember watching my dad stand over the sink and skillfully flick away the black seeds into the sink as he turned the melon flesh in his hands, yielding precious, giant chunks of seedless flesh for his lush saturday fruit salads. But these seem like almost ancient memories.

I can hardly think of a food I love more than watermelon, and to this day I could easily eat half a watermelon myself  (mostly because without the seeds, there is nothing to slow me down). Which is why, when I got a load of the whole watermelon sitting on a stool in the back pantry at Andras parents house yesterday, I nearly clapped with glee. It wasn't just the sheer size of it – easily 17 inches long, surely more than 8 kilos –it was its shape, fat and grooved, deep, dark green like a watermelon I remember from childhood.

"Now that is a watermelon!" I almost shouted, and ran to get my camera.

Andras nor his parents couldn't understand why I would want a photo of a watermelon sitting on a dingy stool. By now they are used to  me taking photos of well, almost everthing we eat, but a watermelon?

"A watermelon like this is nearly extinct in America," I said, with no facts to back up my hypothesis. 

"Really?" Andras questioned the source of my statement, but I had only this: I couldn't count the number of watermelon we'd eaten together in the last 4 years on 10 hands. Not one of them was anything but pale green and smooth, with one-dimensional rinds. Not one had a single seed, not even those wussy white ones that used to be there when seedless watermelon were new on the scene.

Sure enough, when we split this one open, it was brilliant pink, dotted with a maze of shiny black seeds, the kind that made the heart so precious, and the firm, seedless pale pink portion nearer the rind like the tender claw meat of the lobster, worth the work. 

"Where did you get this?" I asked. I was imagining a magical field somewhere, gilded in golden light, with enormous watermelon resting on the soil amongst endless chubby vines.

It turned out this watermelon came from the watermelon truck.

I'd heard about this watermelon truck once while eating melon with Andras back home. It was the Mr. Softee truck of his childhood summers, a regular neighborhood fixture on hot summer afternoons. There were no details attached to his stories, only that this truck piled to the heavens with dinnye (watermelon) would circle the neighborhood bringing the very best melons to your front door. Ah, the romance of a childhood in Europe.

The next morning, just before leaving for a long drive to Romania, Papa came running in the house to get me in a flurry of words.

Gyere. He said. Come. The Dinnye truck had arrived. I came running with cameras. 

I don’t know what I had pictured (a wooden gypsy cart pulled by a team of horses, perhaps?), but it wasn’t a 1988 Citreon hatchback with a loud speaker on the top.  But once I saw these seasoned watermelon traders in action, my disappointment dissipated. I watched from the sidelines, noting every detail. The way he picked the watermelon, held its weight, checked for the pale creamy spot on its underbelly. Then, like at a fine Pince (Vineyard), the merchant inserted a sharp, rounded knife and extracted a perfect cylander of plump pink melon, seeds, rind and all, for a taste. He held the knife out directly toward me. 

"Madame," he said. 

My teeth cut through the crisp, dripping flesh. Perfect. 

I can think of no finer culinary companion for an 8-hour family road trip than a Hungarian watermelon. We loaded it in the car, and hit the road east toward Romania, likely the very direction from which the watermelon came...

Back home, there's no dinnye truck on which to rely on for access to fine, fat watermelon. So in the sticky heat of the coming August days, take faith in your own watermelon-picking expertise.

How to Pick a Watermelon

1.     Look for a firm, symmetrical watermelon without cuts, bruises or dents.
2.     Look for a watermelon that is heavy for its size, full of delicious juices.
3.     Look for a creamy, pale yellow spot on one side that indicates the melon ripened in a field in the sun.


Wild Hungarian Plums & The Szilva Lekvar They Never Became

Veszprem, Hungary

Every year, we plan our trip to Hungary based on the seasons. We come in June for eper (strawberries). July for málna (raspberries) and meggy (sour cherries). October for körte (pears) and füge (figs). That we are here for plum season is a happy accident. And there is one plum in particular that has caught my attention  tiny purple plums that clustered on thin, tangeled branches like bunches of grapes.

Of all the stone fruits I adore, plums are my least favorite, thanks in part to growing up in a country where the fruits in most grocery stores have been whittled down to those that ship and sell well. Plums have been so unremarkable in my fruit-loving life that I can recall exactly three memorable plums: The first was one I picked directly from a tree, probably without asking, around the age of six. The tree in question belonged to our neighbors, the Weltes, and though I can't be sure the variety, the simple thought of having fruits grow on trees in your own backyard was transformative. The second, elegant sweet yellow mirabelles that I ate by the handful in St. Tropez two summers running, which are already gone from the trees here in Hungary. The third, the ruby-red fleshed Elephant Heart Plum, first grown in Sonoma County, California, a plum so spectacular that it is protected by the Slow Food Ark of Taste, lest it peril in extinction. 

There are over 2000 varieties of plums in the world, and, so I've read, at least 100 varieties grown in the United States alone. I've seen a handful of noteworthy ones in the biggest farmer's markets in New York and California, but these—these lila (purple) beauties I’ve never seen before. 

I run inside to consult Papa, and dig for his book entitled Fák (trees), the agrarian picture book that doubles as my guidebook to his backyard. I turned to the pages marked szilva. Plums. But when I explain, through András, what I’m looking for, I get a collective shake of heads from all parties.

“You won’t find that plum in a book.” András explains. “It’s a local plum. Wild.”

“So, what is it called?” I ask.

Kökeny Szilva

András smiles. Blueberry Plum, he translates.

It's a good description. Their color is deep purple-blue, with the same white bloom of a blueberry on its bush. 

I gather from the size of them, no bigger than the top digit of my thumb, there are only two things to do with them. Eat them by the handful ripe from the tree, or, turn them into preserves. 

Igen. Lekvar. Mamma says. 

Papa gestures his arms like an airplane. Aha, it is those that  same silva lekvar that didn’t make it back home with me on my most recent trip here in October, almost two years ago, due to the firm no liquids policy of the FAA (thought I maintain that lekvar is not a liquid). 

I feel a jam-making session coming on, and consider racing back to the yard to collect them all. Surely she doesn’t pit them first. I imagine she must cook them down, then pass them through the food mill, leaving all the pits behind. I explain, with gestures.

No. She shakes her head and charades herself pitting the tiny plum one by one in her chair in front of the TV. Bless her, she is a better woman than I. 

Suddenly, I’m quite tired, and the idea of pitting a few kilos of pici (tiny) plums seems like the work for another day. Besides, she has already put up several jars, plenty for spreading between our palicinta (pancakes) and over fresh kenyar (bread), and two extras she tucked aside for us to bring home (this time in our checked luggage). 

Of course, I recorded her method for another day, a time when it's my responsibility to keep the family in lekvar. I hope that day is a long ways away. 

If you come across a batch of special plums, here's Mamma's Recipe. This calls for sugar, required for the tart wild plums, but not for any sweet plum variety, which can be cooked down in its own juices until thick and sweet {I recommend the alluring fruit-lovers guide to all things preserves, The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook}. 

Szilva Lekvar

1 kilogram / 2 1/4 pounds tart plums, pitted
600 grams / 3 cups sugar 

makes 5 pint-size jars preserves

  1. Combine plums and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed pot over low heat. Cook until completely broken down, stirring occasionally, about 2 hours. Puree with an immersion blender to desired consistency.
  2. Can according the Ball canning guidelines (here), or pack in pint containers and refrigerate for up to 2 months. 


Hungarian as Apple Pie

We arrived in Hungary just in time for lunch, as we always do, and were met with the same meal that I’ve come to count on as the taste of Hungary.  Everything was just as I remembered it except now I am Anya (mommy) and Anya is Nagymamma or Mamma (grandma). This time the table was set with a tiny spoon for Greta, and before we eat, she is showered with the hugs and kisses of her Mamma and Papa (Grandma and Grandpa), aunts and an uncle who had waited 8 1/2 long months to meet her. 

The rest of our first day here was as it always is. Only, after lunch I took my nap side by side with Greta instead of András. And when we awake, groggy and hungry yet again, there, of course, is Nagymamma’s almás pite. Apple pie. The perfect soothing anecdote for seven sleepless hours on a plane.

My guess is there’s as many ways to make an apple pie in Hungary as there are in the U.S. But there’s only one way I like it back home—all butter crust, big chunks of tart apples coated in cinnamon, and topped with a thick slab of sharp cheddar— and only one way I like it here in Hungary. That is Nagymamma’s way.

Her apple pie is a different thing all together from any pie I’ve ever known. It is thick layers of tangy, tart apples cooked musty sweet like apple butter between two thin layers of soft whole wheat dough, with the characteristic graham flavor I’ve come to equate with the taste of András' home. Like most sweets in this household it feels wholesome, almost healthy, fruit picked from backyard trees enrobed in a graham crust. It’s the kind of thing you might enjoy with cheese (say Trappista, from the Trappist monks of Hungary’s hills) as a light dinner (since the large meal here is consumed at noon), or with coffee and milk for reggeli (breakfast) the next day.

Luckily, Nagymamma has the foresight to make a batch big enough for both.

Early on our second day, we run out of what at first seemed an endless plate of almás pite. And we are restless. It’s cold here, for the family, a respite from the 104 degrees of mid-July; For us, a surprise. We’ve packed for high heat, and our gauzy summer dresses are off-limits in the house of a grandmother who is always after us to bundle up, wear slippers on the bare floor, cover our necks lest we get the hiccups. There’s not the right light for making pictures of all the fruit trees brimming with each imaginable variety of stone fruit. Even laundry is on hold, since my mother-in-law, like most Hungarians, still relies on the sun as her dryer. So, there’s nothing to do but bundle Greta in the wool pants and cap her Nagymamma knit for her, and bake.

I hint that I’d like to learn to make Mamma’s almás pite. Out comes her book of hand-written recipes. I examine it, trying to imagine how decagrams translates to something usable in my kitchen vocabulary.

Around me, people pass Greta from lap to lap.  Old friends and cousins come and go, talking in what seems (in my limited Mgyar vocabulary) to be great length about the simplest topics, each family member weighing in with words that seem too long to mean what they do.

When the conversation looses me, Greta and I steel away to the garden and make ourselves at home in the blackberry bramble, 5-years thick. The berries are merlot black, jammy. And if perfectly ripe, they ooze a juice that gives us away when we return, my fingers stained from picking and a little inky ring around Greta’s tiny mouth, still in a pucker of pleasure.

It is there that I get the idea that we should add blackberries to the almás pite, to make it seasonal. Apples are, afterall, a fall fruit. I tell this to András. He translates.

Papa shakes his head. Apples are in season here. András tells me, translating his parents rebuttal.  Only a few blackberries are ready, he says (though Greta and I have just eaten them). Most of them need a few days.

But okay, Nagymamma agrees. We will add szeder. Blackberry.

While András goes for a long run with his oldest friends, Greta and I go to the garden with Nagymamma to pick fruit. First, she collects the apples that have fallen to the ground. Nothing is wasted here. Then another kilo that come easily from the tree. 

Then blackberries, I remind her.

Igen. Szeder. Yes. Blackberries. 

Inside, I set up the computer to Google translator, put Greta in a pouch on my back and line up my recipe booklet side by side with Nagymamma’s to start recording.

40 decagram flour

2 kilos of alma. Apples.

I taste them. They are sweet, just subtly tart, and they remind me of jonagolds.

What type of alma? I ask, in a blend of Mgyar-English. 

I type the word variety into the translator and she examines the result. Fajta. 

 Nyári Piros. Mamma answers.

She writes the words in my notebook.

I repeat the words with her. Nyári Piros.

Then I type it into the computer to translate. 

Summer Red.

A summer apple. Indeed.

How strange they must think my ideas, my insistence that we add a handful or two of szeder to the perfected almás pite. How ridiculous to think my ideas about seasonlity aren't shared here, here in a culture where almost every family outside of large cities still, in large part, lives off their land. Here, in a home where almost everything I've ever eaten is grown by their hands. I try to apologize.

Bocsánat. Sorry. Most értem. Now I understand.

Nagymamma smiles her constant, unjudging smile.

We finish making the pita, Mamma, Greta and I. We rub the butter into the graham flour to coat it like an American apple pie dough. We add sour cream, egg yolk. We roll it thin, coat it in the warm apple butter stained pink from szeder. We cover the filling with another layer of dough, prick it with a fork and set it to bake.

Fifty mintues later then the pie comes from the oven. We cut it into squares, dust it in powdered sugar. Family members emerge from every corner of the house and the pile on the plate disappears. Five minutes later, András sister and sister-in-law, Dalma and Szophie come back to the kitchen praising me, my silly idea redeemed.

Szeder Almas Pita. Szeretem. I love it.

Jó. Nagyon, nagyon jó. All agree. Good. Very, very good. 

Hungarian Blackberry Apple Pie

2 kilos / 4 1/4 pounds tart-sweet apples, such as Jonagold
1 handful ripe blackberries
250 grams / 1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 lemon

400 grams / 2 2/3 cups graham or whole wheat flour
100 grams / 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch sea salt
250 grams / 9 ounces / 2 1/4  sticks butter, in pieces
1 cup sour cream
2 egg yolks

serves: a crowd (about 25 bars)

  1. Peel, core and slice the apples. Add them to a pot with blackberries, sugar, cinnamon and the zest of 1 lemon. Squeeze the juices of half the lemon over the top, straining the seeds as you go. Cook on low heat until the apples break down.
  2. Preheat the Oven to 175 c/ 250 F. Meanwhile, whisk together graham flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Work the butter into the flour with your hands (or pulse together in a food processor) until the butter coats the dry mixture and resembles a coarse meal. Stir together sour cream and egg yolks and blend into the dough with a fork until it just comes together.
  3. Use your hands to gather the dough and knead it slightly in the bowl. Divide the dough into two portions, one slightly larger than the other.
  4. Roll out the first portion of dough on a lightly floured surface to create a rectangle just large enough to cover the bottom and up the sides of a 12 X 17 X 1 inch / 32 X 44 X 2.5 cm jelly roll pan or your closest size similar pan (a 1-inch sided baking sheet works well). Spread the filling over the dough. Roll the remaining dough until large enough to cover the top. Don’t worry if some pieces of fruit are left uncovered or the dough cracks in places.
  5. Prick the dough all over with a fork and bake until cooked through, about 50 minutes. Cool 30 minutes. Cut into bars; dust with powdered sugar and serve warm or at room temperature. 

My photo
New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.