Many fruits remind us of summer, but watermelon has to take the cake as the ultimate seasonal icon. Its bright green striped exterior and brilliant red interior are reminiscent of vibrant summer flowers and tropical paradises. Its high water content and sweet, juicy flesh make it perfect for picnics and other outdoor get-togethers. And before all these newfangled technologies emerged that made the melons available year-round, watermelons were primarily harvested during the summer months. Outside of their warm-weather affinity though, watermelons also have a fascinating history. Read on to get the full scoop on this fantastic fruit.
First and foremost, it’s called “watermelon” for a reason. This refreshing, crunchy, thirst-quenching relative of the melon family is composed of more than 90 percent water and has been prized throughout history as a drought resistant, vital source of H2O. First domesticated more than 6,000 years ago in southern and central Africa, the watermelon spread via trade routes to China, Vietnam, India, and Egypt, where its seeds and leaves were left for the dead in Egyptian tombs. Around 961 BC, Moorish conquerors introduced the watermelon to Europe, and in the 16th century, the watermelon made its way to the New World with African slaves and European colonists.
While the watermelon is a truly international fruit, the melon really found its niche upon its arrival in the United States. According to The Cambridge World History of Food, Thomas Jefferson was known to grow a variety of watermelons in his gardens at Monticello, and Henry David Thoreau was an avid cultivator. Mark Twain immortalized the fruit in Puddn’head Wilson where he wrote, the watermelon ”is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.” Specifically in the southern United States, watermelon festivals—along with seed-spitting contests, watermelon queen pageants, and watermelon eating contests—are commonplace.
In the watermelon’s more current history, advancements in genetics have made it so that hybrid, seedless versions have replaced everyday watermelons as the dominant melon in American supermarkets. As of 2010, only two out of every ten watermelons in the United States had seeds in it. Even more recently, farmers in Japan have developed a method of growing watermelons in cube-shaped glass boxes so that they are square and easily stackable in fridges and on shelves. The fruit has just hit select American grocery stores and costs about $75 a pop, so be ready to shell out the big bucks for a square-shaped melon.
Nowadays, watermelons are still a worldwide favorite. In many Asian and African countries, the rind is eaten pickled and candied (a trend we see paralleled in some American kitchens). In Russia, the juice is fermented into alcohol. In India, the seeds are ground with flour to make bread. And in Vietnam and many Middle Eastern nations, the seeds are roasted, then eaten. But regardless of whether you eat seedless, square watermelons, or the “old fashioned” fruit once consumed by the Egyptians, this fabulous melon will always be refreshing, sweet, and most of all, fun.