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Friday, October 8, 2010

"People Who Love Pepo..."

The summer has come and gone, and so has one of my favorite foods – watermelon.  Although we only bought one we considered good (the rest were cold and wet, which sufficed in the 100+ degree weather), hope sprung eternal, and still does.

The Ur watermelon is thought to have originated in Africa, just like humans.  Scientists doing investigations with chloroplast DNA (everything is getting DNA mapped) believe that cultivated and wild watermelons diverged independently from a common Eve-melon, possibly from Namibia.  When it was first cultivated is unknown, but seeds were found in Tut’s tomb, for one, although no ancient writings or hieroglyphic mention it.  The presumptive Dr. Livingstone described them as abundant in the Kalahari.

By the tenth century their cultivation had spread to China, which is the single largest producer in the world today.  According to the Dictionary of American Food and Drink the word “watermelon” first appeared in an English dictionary in 1615.  It is thought to have been introduced into Europe in the 1400s.

When watermelons came to the U.S. seems to be debatable.  Native Americans were growing them in the Mississippi Valley according to early French explorers.  They were introduced in Massachusetts by 1629, according to “many sources”.  One Southern food historian believes that African slaves introduced watermelons to the U.S.  Today the largest producers are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

The Japanese of the Zentsuji region grow cubic watermelons, which makes them easier to transport and store, by placing the young fruits in square glass bottles, thus forcing them to retain the shape.  Attempts have been made at growing pyramidal ones (Tut would’ve loved those), and in the future one may have a choice of various polyhedral shapes.  Perhaps designer watermelons, with shapes befitting the lifestyles of the rich and famous will be available (conceivably the true purpose of the Mellon plan.)

It is considered a thoughtful hostess gift in China and Japan.  In Egypt and Israel it is often served with feta, which I see more and more in recipe books and sites in the U.S.  Central Asian watermelons are reputed to be excellent, so I was delighted to read in the L.A Times that farmers in Central California are growing them from seeds from Xinjiang, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and the other -stans.

Since watermelon is 92% water, it is an excellent and healthy food containing Vitamins A, B6, and C, and no fat or cholesterol.  Related to cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins, it is botanically a pepo – a berry that has an exocarp (rind), as well as a mesocarp and endocarp (flesh).  It is not a true melon by genus, but the melon family seems accepting of it, nonetheless, as it reflects well on the genus.  Although red  seems to be the most popular and desired in the U.S., watermelon flesh can be equally tasty if yellow, orange, or other colors.

The world's biggest watermelon was grown in 2005 in Hope, Arkansas. It weighed in at 268.8 pounds.  No reports exist of how it tasted, but it has a place in my version of the afterlife.


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