Watermelon and I go way back. One of our first encounters occurred when I was a mere child. The family car, a 1951 Studebaker, was trapped behind a slow-moving truck carrying a load of watermelons.
Looking up from the Studebaker, I saw a mountain of watermelons looming over me. The great green load pressed against a "fence" of wooden slates that had been placed in the truck bed to corral the cargo. I thought about what would happen if those slats gave way. There would be a watermelon avalanche. Someone might get hurt. But there would also be plenty of free, freshly opened watermelons for all to enjoy.
I spent several miles alternately rooting for and against the watermelon accident. Dad eventually gunned the Studebaker around the truck, leaving behind my dream of a free roadside snack.
I was less than 5 years old at the time. Since then my fondness for the fruit and free snacks has remained constant, but much has changed in the world of watermelons. Take for instance the way watermelons travel to market today. Donald Hales, who grows and ships watermelons at his Wicomico County farm, Plant Farm of Delmarva, told me an easily identifiable watermelon truck is hard to find.
Hales said the kind of watermelon transport I saw as a kid -- a big open truck carrying loose melons -- is rare. Nowadays there are coach-class watermelons that ride to market in trucks divided into compartments, or bins. These melons share the compartments. Meanwhile, a more pampered class of melons rides to market in trucks filled with cardboard boxes. The boxes, I was told, cushion the bodies of the melons against the bruising nature of travel.
If you got stuck today behind a truck carrying a load of boxed watermelons, Hales said, you wouldn't know it from a truck carrying a load of grapefruit.
Hales is a past president of both the National Watermelon Association and the MarDel Watermelon Association. He told me he had recently attended a watermelon-growers' convention and had seen the future. The future of watermelons, he said, looks increasingly seedless and neat.
Ten years from now, he predicted, seedless watermelon will be chopped up and shipped to market in chilled, plastic containers. You can already buy your melons in containers, of course, but they don't arrive in stores that way.
Eating watermelon from these containers is like eating yogurt. You pop off the top and eat the contents with a fork or spoon.
This new business of watermelon-eating as something you can do wearing a shirt and tie sends chills down my spine. I have always happily associated watermelon-eating with excess. With watermelons there has been no holding back. For me, a watermelon encounter has been a sensual experience of sweet meat, dripping juices, slippery seeds and crisp, tart rind. For DTC dates with some foods, like pheasant under glass, I get dressed up. But for watermelon I take clothes off. The best watermelon-eating outfit, in my opinion, is little more than a swimsuit.
When I spoke to Hales on the phone, I told him of my fondness for watermelons. Hales, who grew up on his family's farm on Snow Hill Road outside Salisbury, shared a few watermelon memories of his own. He said his prime watermelon-eating experience came after he had worked in fields all night, and then, as dawn came, feasted on a freshly picked melon. "The watermelon is cold from the dew in the morning, and you drop it and bust it open, and eat the heart with your hands," Hales said. "Man, it doesn't get any better."
When I mentioned some watermelons from my past -- Crimson Sweets, Charleston Greys and Black Diamonds -- Hales told me these old favorites were phased out some time ago. New types of watermelons now offer more flexibility to farmers for their planting schedules, he said.
Years ago when a farmer grew watermelons in a field, he had to wait six or seven years after a harvest before he could grow the fruit in the same ground again, Hales said. With the new varieties, farmers have to wait only three or four years to replant a watermelon crop in the same field. There are even a few experimental varieties of watermelon, he said, that allow back-to-back plantings.
One thing that has changed little in the watermelon scene: July is still a high point of the season. While you can buy melons grown in Mexico, California or Florida virtually any time of year, the locally grown watermelons start showing up in July.
As is true with most produce, the shorter the distance a watermelon has to travel to market, the happier the result for the eater. In past Julys, for instance, I have eaten some Eastern Shore melons that were so sweet they made my teeth tingle.
I have always thought that the watermelon-eating season gets serious on the Fourth of July. That is when there is a chance you can find a melon that is sweet all the way down to its rind. That is when a melon might be so juicy you might have to take your shoes off to avoid dripping on them.
This Tuesday, as part of the Fourth of July celebration in Bel Air, there is a watermelon-eating contest set for 1 o'clock on the grounds of Bel Air High. The contest is open to watermelon eaters of all ages. As I understand it, shirts but not shoes are required.