In praise of watermelon

One of my favorite summer fruits is watermelon. It’s refreshing and delicious. Unlike other summer fruit (peaches, berries, even cantaloupe), it keeps well. As an added bonus, it’s hydrating, which is something we think about in summer.

Watermelon didn’t spring from the ground, fully formed as the sweet red fruit we know. According to Harry Paris, an Israeli horticulturist, the watermelon’s trip to modern grocery stores began 5000+ years ago in Africa. Back then, ancient watermelons were not very appealing. They were hard and either tasteless or bitter. You might wonder why anyone would bother with a fruit like that. Harry Paris speculates that despite these disagreeable characteristics, the water part of the melon made it desirable. Melons could be stored for weeks in cool shady places, which meant they could be used as a water source during dry months, or taken along on journeys. Sort of like a primitive water bottle.

Eventually people started breeding melons with better flavor and texture. By happy coincidence, the gene that gives watermelon its red color works with the gene that controls sugar content.

Summer is watermelon season, when they’re at their peak for flavor. It’s also a great time to make use of watermelon’s main property — water. Hydration is critically important in hot weather, and eating watermelon is a great way to hydrate. It’s over 90% water. One cup of watermelon chunks has over 1/2 cup of water, and around 45 calories. If primitive bitter melons worked like water bottles, modern sweet melons work like natural sports drinks: lots of fluid, a few quick energy calories.

In fact, watermelon has more than just water and energy. That cup of watermelon chunks also contains vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, fiber, and B vitamins. Plus it’s sweet, with a slight crunch, and refreshing. It’s also filling.

Using Watermelon

Of course, the classic way to serve it is as dessert at picnics or outdoor BBQs. Before seedless melons became the norm, spitting seeds was part of the process, great entertainment for kids. But watermelon is not just for dessert. Here are some ideas for using watermelon:

  • Pack up chunks of watermelon for an afternoon snack on a hot day. It’s a great snack choice for kids’ outdoor sports activities like baseball, soccer, other team sports or even swimming.
  • Add it to fruit salad
  • Make a watermelon-centric salad. One popular use is with feta cheese. Check out this interesting recipe for a Greek style watermelon salad.
  • Blend watermelon, ice cubes, lime juice and a pinch of sugar for a thirst quenching aqua fresca
  • Another variation on this is watermelon lemonade. In this recipe, you filter the blended watermelon to remove the pulp, leaving only the juice. I’d be inclined to ignore that step and just blend watermelon with the lemon juice, water and sugar to taste.
  • Use watermelon to make sangria
  • Make watermelon-infused water. Flavor with mint
  • Add cubed watermelon to a green salad. It goes especially well with bitter greens like arugula. Use a simple olive oil vinaigrette dressing.

Problems?

Yes there’s one problem with watermelon. The melons might look lovely and fresh in the bin at the grocery store, but when you get it home and cut it open, it’s bland and tasteless, or not quite ripe. There’s no way to tell if a watermelon will be juicy and sweet until you do cut it open. I don’t have a solution to that mystery. So far, this summer’s crop seems to be delicious, but that could change from one supplier to another.

Meanwhile I’ll take my chances buying it anyway. I appreciate having an alternative to plain water for hydration in hot weather. I find it particularly filling and satisfying. I don’t need to add anything else — like cookies, chocolate or ice cream — to a watermelon snack. All thanks to people who lived thousands of years ago, who decided their primitive natural water bottle could taste better.

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