Watermelon 101

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It’s an age-old puzzle. You’re standing in front of dozens of gorgeous watermelons…how do you choose the best one? The experts say there are two schools of thought on that…

‘You want one that’s not a bright, shiny green…’

‘You pat on it, like that”

‘There’s a little stem, and when it turns brown it’s done.’

‘You want it to be firm to the touch, a slightly dull rind”

‘It’s really hard to describe, in words.’

Okay, five schools of thought. But still, according to a quick survey of the professional melon growers who were assembled on a recent afternoon at the Birmingham Farmer’s Market, watermelon selection techniques fall into two main categories: the ‘lookers,’ and the ‘thumpers.’ Clarence Kenyon, of North Birmingham, is a proud member of the thumping fraternity:

‘It’s different in the sound. That’s a better watermelon, right there, than this one. Can’t you tell the difference?’

But Victor Buchanan, who grows watermelons in Cullman County, is a confirmed looker…

‘A lot of people also tell by looking at the bottom of the melon. If the bottom is a creamy color, then the melon will be riper. That’s how I tell. I don’t thump much.’

Jack Collins, of Hueytown, says he has an absolutely foolproof technique for judging the ripeness of a melon…

‘By the stem. Where you pull it off the vine, it’ll be brown.’

The only downside of Collins’ method is that the stem has a bad habit of falling off, between the field and the market, in which case you’re right back to either looking, or thumping. But regardless of technique, Jackie Ramsey of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System says Alabamians live in a watermelon paradise…

‘Watermelons are grown throughout Alabama, in just about every county. With the weather here, the hot climate, we have good growing seasons. We can enjoy them at our picnics or pool parties, and whatever, all the way up until frost. We’ve very fortunate.’

Fortunate, too, because watermelons are good for you, says Ramsey…

‘They have a good source of Vitamins A and C. And most of all, they’re low in calories. You can fill up quickly on them. They’re 98 percent water, I think, and they’re virtually fat-free. So it’s a really healthy food. We’re always trying to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. I’d love to see us eat more watermelons, here in Alabama.’

And though Ramsey is hesitant to take sides on the looking-versus-thumping controversy, she says she’s basically a looker, at heart…

‘Most of the experts say you really can’t tell the ripeness by thumping a watermelon. But I tell you, a lot of the old-timers disagree with that. I think it’s just the sound that they, themselves, have learned over the years, you know? But it’s not for me.’

Speaking of old-timers, Clarence Kenyon says he has been known to fall back on a, shall we say, ‘cutting edge’ technique for determining ripeness…

‘The best way to tell a good watermelon…you cut it and taste it,’ he says with a hearty chuckle.

Listen to the song ‘Watermelon Dream’ by Guy Clark