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On a steamy night, ripe recollections of ice-cold watermelons


On nights when nothing is stirring, when the trees hang heavy with humidity, I seek solace in ice-cold watermelon.

For some reason, when watermelon juices are running down my chin I forget about the sweat trickling down my back. The riper and colder the melon, the more pleasure it offers.

The other night, a steamer, I found myself slicing a chunk of reasonably cold, relatively ripe melon for my 12-year-old son and telling him watermelon stories. Both he and his younger brother are fond of the fruit, and watching either of them eat it is always a welcome sight. My kids and I may disagree on whether an order of french fries constitutes "lunch," but we agree on the glories of watermelon eating, a practice that spans the generations.

My son and I examined the heart of the melon, a spot where the sugar content rises and the number of seeds diminishes. There are two theories, I told him, on when to eat this sweet spot. One is the immediate gratification theory: You eat it right away. The other is the delayed gratification approach: You eat around the heart, saving the sweetest bite until last.

We looked at the color of the flesh close to the rind. One mark of a great melon, I told him, is that its flesh is red and sweet right down to its "bone" -- that is, the white pulp that sits next to its rind. The melon we were eating was good but not great; its sweetness started fading about half an inch before the pulp.

We talked about the common methods of determining whether a melon is ripe. There is the "thump" method of tapping the melon with your fist and listening to the sound move through the melon. Most folks have trouble distinguishing the "deep thump" sound given off by ripe melon from the dull thud of a run-of-the-mill melon. Hearing the deep thump is, I said, like having perfect pitch. It is an ability you are born with. Next, there is the bottom-ogling method of picking a ripe melon. You examine the pale underside of the melon. A mature melon has a creamy bottom, not bright white and not pale green.

When I told my son about testing a watermelon by having it "plugged," he didn't know what I was talking about. And so I told him about the night we plugged the 40-pound melon.

I told him it happened on a hot summer night, when I was a bored teen-ager, anxious to get away from my family. The kid seemed interested, especially at the mention of getting away from family.

One of my friends, I continued, had his driver's license. And like most summer nights, this one began with my friend picking me up in his old Chevy. We picked up two other guys and drove around town. We cruised, checking out the miniature golf course and a couple of drive-in restaurants, until we found ourselves in a park, wanting to do something wild.

We considered the various forms of vice. Drinking beer was pondered but was voted down on several counts. We were under the legal drinking age by about five years. Besides we didn't really like beer. It was bitter.

We considered girls. They were complicated. Only two of the four of us had girlfriends. And they had fathers who wouldn't let their daughters out of the house on such short notice.

So eventually we considered watermelon. We decided to go out and buy the biggest watermelon we could find. Right outside the park was a fruit stand. The store kept its melons floating in a big tank, along with big blocks of ice, making the water so cold that it hurt your hand if you stuck it in to fetch a melon. We told the fellow tending the melon tank we wanted a mammoth melon. He selected a 40-pounder and asked if we wanted it plugged.

We said we did. We watched as he cut a small cylindrical serving of the melon and presented it to us to taste. Supposedly, if a buyer didn't like the taste of the plug, he could refuse the melon. There was pressure associated with tasting the plug. Rather than putting all the melon-testing pressure on one guy, all four of us tasted the plug. We approved. Years later, when restaurant wine stewards present me with a cork from wine bottles, I am tempted to take clue from my watermelon-plugging days and pass the cork around the table for all to sniff.

We took the prized melon back to the park. There, sitting on a picnic table in the dark, we devoured it. We ripped the melon apart with our hands. We let juice stream down our faces. We spit the seeds into the night. It was a melon to remember.

Somehow that melon made a long, dull summer a little shorter.

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