Melon matters: seeds, size and sounds of thumping

August 31, 2005|By ROB KASPER

THE IDEAL WAY to eat watermelon, according to Will Hales, an Eastern Shore melon grower, "is to crack one open in the middle of a field and eat the heart out."

I agree, but few of us have that sweet opportunity. Hales, along with his father, Donald, grows watermelons on 325 acres in Wicomico County and ships them to markets on the East Coast. The family business, Hales Farms Inc. of Salisbury, handles a lot of melons, an estimated 12 million pounds of them this year.

One recent afternoon, as Hales was overseeing shipments for Labor Day weekend, the last major melon-eating occasion of the summer, he took a few minutes to talk with me on the telephone about watermelon matters. We talked about seeds, size, shipping methods and eating styles.

Seeds are out, he said, or more precisely, seedless watermelons are in. The overwhelming majority of the melons he and fellow Delmarva watermelon growers produce are seedless. "It has been that way for the past three or four years. We hardly see any seeded melons," he said.

Most melon eaters don't want to bother with seeds, he said. It is possible to sell a few seeded melons in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and New York, but even in these cities, seedless rules, he said.

In addition to shedding their seeds, modern melons are getting smaller, Hales said. The average weight of the Millionaire, a popular seedless variety, is 15 to 16 pounds. This, he said, is a few pounds smaller than the melons of bygone summers.

The 15-pound melons are easier to handle than the mammoth melons of yore, he said, and they fit in the family fridge.

How the melons get to market also has changed, he said. The open trucks that once hauled great mounds of fat melons along the highways, fueling the fantasy lives of small boys traveling in cars stuck behind the lumbering load and delighting newspaper photographers when one of the trucks overturned, are virtually gone, he said.

Modern melons, he said, travel in individual cardboard cartons and often are ferried to market in sealed, air-conditioned comfort.

I couldn't let a watermelon grower go without asking him the perennial consumer question: How do you tell when the watermelon is ripe?

Hales, who has been in the business for a decade, says he tells just by looking at the skin of the melons in the fields. "When they are showing a little bit of sun, when the skin is slightly bleached, not hazy, they are ready," he said.

Folks shopping for melons in a market should employ the thump test, he said. "Thump the melon with your hand and listen. What you want to hear is a hollow sound. If you hear dead sound, the melon is overripe," he said.

I thanked him but told him that whenever I thump a watermelon I am reminded of the time I was out on the Chesapeake Bay with a crabber who tried to show me how to tell when a blue crab was about to shed its shell.

The waterman held up crab after crab, instructing me to look at the color of a segment of the crab's legs. "See, she's peelin'," the crabber told me. I looked and looked but couldn't see what his practiced eye detected. Similarly, when I thump a melon, I'm not sure what I am hearing. I don't have a waterman's eye or a watermelon grower's ear.

Yet I do love to eat watermelons, a slice for breakfast, another for lunch and one or two as dessert at supper.

The sweetest melons, those that taste sugary right down to the rind, are those that have struggled during the summer, Hales told me. Those that disappoint, that taste, as Hales put it, "like a cucumber," usually have been given too much water, he said. I am familiar with cucumber-flavored melons. I have grown a few in my garden.

After talking with Hales, I drove to the grocery store and bought a quarter of a seedless watermelon. I took it home and used pieces of it in an unusual recipe, cheeseburgers topped with slices of peppered watermelon.

It was one of the recipes I found on a Web site (watermel on.org) sponsored by the nation's watermelon growers. It sounded horrible. But I was going to try it, so I could attack it as a crime against tradition. Modern melons, I could see myself saying, had lost seeds and size and now they had lost their culinary bearings, showing up in the company of cheeseburgers.

But a funny thing happened on my way to indignation. I ended up liking the combination. The slice of warm, peppered watermelon gave the burger a fresh, faintly sweet note, like a slice of tomato but more refreshing.

Watermelon, my longtime summer friend, had shown me a new trick.

Watermelon Cheeseburgers

Serves 4

four 1/4 -pound hamburger patties

four 1/2 -ounce slices white cheddar cheese

4 slices (about 3 inches in diameter) seeded watermelon, about size of burgers

1 tablespoon ground pepper

4 toasted buns

Prepare a fire on grill. Grill hamburgers, directly over fire, almost to desired doneness, but about a minute before they are done, place a cheese slice on each burger.

Place watermelon slices on grill and dust with pepper to taste. Cook until warm, about 1 minute on each side.

Assemble the burgers on buns with slice of warmed watermelon on top of each cheeseburger.

-- Adapted from Watermelon.org

Per serving: 468 calories; 26 grams protein; 21 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 44 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 81 milligrams cholesterol; 354 milligrams sodium

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