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.

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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.