Southern Seen — The watch on the rind

Southern Seen — The watch on the rind

By: Larry McGehee

Here in textile country two major issues in the presidential election are unemployment and foreign production of goods. Occasional boycotts of foreign-made goods occur. I tried a boycott one summer. I refused to buy any imported watermelons. “Buy Homegrown” read my bumper sticker, its green-striped letters on a passion-pink background with black watermelon seed quotation marks. Each Saturday about mid-May when strawberry season was underway, I drove up to the open-air farmers’ market. I’d ask “Old MacDonald, Esq., prop.” for a homegrown watermelon. By the second week, he recognized my face. After three weeks, he knew my name. Within a month, he would hide in the storage shed whenever I wheeled in and would send an unattractive boy with awful acne to wait on me. By then, fresh local peaches–those spring’s late snow hadn’t killed–were coming in, and I bought my way back into MacDonald’s favor with a few pecks of peaches. It was worth it to hear him explain how melons were moving north towards me. He had offered me Mexican melons first. Then California. Then Texas. Then Florida. Then he moved across southern Mississippi and Alabama, and suddenly jumped back to Missouri. The melons were getting closer, but I stood my ground. I would not settle for some seductive alien, picked green before its time in order to survive from patch to market, no matter how waxed its outer shell or how seductive its thump or how symmetrical its dark lines or how perfect its shape. I am as good a connoisseur of watermelons as Orson Welles was of wines. No watermelon ought to be picked–much less eaten–before its time. Katherine Hepburn ate raw corn on the stalk in the fields because it loses taste and nutrition as soon as it is picked, and much the same is true of watermelons. The best watermelons are eaten by moonlight in a field, broken open on the spot and their hearts consumed rapidly after being lifted out by hand. Unfortunately, my education has “civilized” me away from this style of eating melons. Part of that education, early on, was learning to fear buckshot. I have also had to give up the pleasure of holding a slice in my hands and eating without utensils, except at picnics. Picnics are fewer these days, and spitting seeds in a cafeteria or at a hostess’ lace-covered tabletop is unmannerly. Out of sheer obstinence, however, I still refuse to use a spoon or fork. I use a steak knife. First I salt the melon, then cut carefully between the rind and fruit, then cut the red layer into geometrical pieces. Then I slice lengthwise again, to separate the seeded halves from “the heart of the matter,” the center pieces. With the knife point, I eat the top heart slices. Then I pick out the second-layer seeds with the knife tip, and place them in a tidy pile on the side of the plate. Salt again. Then consume the second layer. Very little juice is left this way. If at home, I take the rind to the sink and cut it into small pieces, hoping that my wife will make watermelon pickles, but knowing the pieces are going to fit perfectly in the disposal. I also know the pile of seeds will never find its way to the garden, to grow my own melons. But I am able to abide those minor disappointments if the purchased melon is locally grown. Good watermeloning is a partnership between the melon and its eater. The melon does its part by being homegrown, and I do mine by the scientific and surgical skill with which I eat it. Nothing insults me or my melon more than for some “artist” to hollow out the melon and refill it with melon balls. But, to get back to that summer’s “Buy Homegrown” campaign, I waited and waited, and Old Macdonald explained and apologized and hid. In August, in sheer desperation, he even offered to “plug” a Georgia melon for me. I hadn’t heard a melon salesman offer to plug a melon in years. These days, unless you buy one of those supermarket melon halves wrapped in plastic, you just make your thump, pay the price, and take your chances. I resisted the offer. Then, late in August, after a two-month drought, local melons came in. MacDonald raced to my car before I could cut the engine, opened the door for me, and led me proudly to the nest of straw. Those were without a doubt the most stunted, gnarled specimens of melon I had ever seen. No sale! Old MacDonald was crying as I left. Back home, I removed from the freezer the melon I had stored there a year ago -anticipating this crisis. Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu Published in The Messenger 6.2.08

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