Melons make things better

The Baltimore Sun

My solution to the trials of life is eating watermelon. This is not a year-round cure-all. It only works now, in hot weather.

That is when the melons are ripe, the moon is beaming and a breeze is at your back. On such evenings, I take a bite of a sweet slice of watermelon and enjoy its unique succulent flavor. Then I toss my head back, eye the moon and, with my tongue and a strong sense of purpose, I send a watermelon seed hurtling into the distance. On such occasions, the world seems right.

Apparently, I am not alone. The appeal of eating watermelon and propelling its seeds into the void appears to be primal. Even though some 80 percent of the watermelons now sold in the United States are seedless, consumers still have a soft spot in their hearts for seeds, according to Gordon Hunt, marketing director of the National Watermelon Promotion Board in Orlando, Fla. There are several reasons why.

One is antiquity. Because old-time watermelons had seeds, there is the feeling among some consumers that an original-style melon must taste better, Hunt said.

There is also an often unrealistic mental image people have of the watermelons of their youth, he said.

"People have this memory, even if they grew up in Manhattan, of sitting on the back porch eating watermelon and spitting seeds," he said. Reality is often a different matter, he said. How many back porches are there, he asked, in Manhattan?

I confess that I hold a somewhat idyllic seed-spitting memory. I once spit watermelon seeds with royalty, on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. The occasion was the annual visit of the Watermelon Queens to Congress, a media event.

These young women represented the watermelon-growing regions of our nation - Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Indiana-Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Maryland-Delaware. In addition to poise and perfect makeup, they demonstrated an ability to propel watermelon seeds from their mouths a great distance without smudging their lipstick. They beat all comers, including a few congressmen and members of the media.

There are, it seems to me, many magical beliefs associated with watermelons.

One area thick with questionable theories is how to select a ripe melon at the market. For decades, I have solicited advice from farmers to cookbook authors on this subject. The answers have varied. There is, for example, a belief that a ripe melon will have sun-bleached skin. Then there is the practice of thumping the melon with your fist and listening to detect a telltale resonance. A ripe melon is said to sound like a hollow door.

The other day, Hunt told me about another method - slapping the melon. You hold the melon in one hand and slap it with your other hand, he said. Then, he said, you listen for "a ringing sound." A ripe melon, he said, "is full of water and has a tight rind so you should get a high pitched, musical tone." If your slap produces a low tone, then you have a mushy melon, he said.

I can't wait to try this slap method out on the Maryland melons, which should be arriving in local markets in late July.

Until recently, the phrase "getting lucky with a watermelon" meant picking a ripe one. But earlier this month, news stories appeared saying that if men eat enough watermelon, some six cups, the effects mimic those of taking Viagra.

Scientists at Texas A&M;'s Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Center have been studying watermelon. They report that watermelons contain citrulline, an ingredient that can trigger production of a compound that helps relax the body's blood vessels. This apparently is similar to what happens when men take Viagra.

The Texas A&M; scientists did not mention Viagra in their published reports in scientific journals. I read the reports, or tried to. They spoke about blood flow and how citrulline triggers arginine, which in turn boosts nitric oxide, which is important for cardiovascular health.

But the Viagra comparison appeared in a wire service story, and the story, which appeared on the Fourth of July, went around the world. Since then the scientists, I have been told, have stopped talking to the press about this research.

I know that the side effects of eating six cups of watermelon a day, which is a diuretic, could be unpleasant.

But for me the citrulline effect, however shaky, amounts to one more romantic reason to enjoy summer by eating watermelon and pitching its seeds into the night.

See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.

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