You know summer is near its peak when locally raised watermelons start showing up in roadside stands.
Sure you can get a watermelon or what they call a watermelon year round from the national chain grocery store with the stickers that say product of Chile or Mexico. They are kind of red inside but are tasteless.
Victims of being picked green, briefly stored in warehouses where they introduce ethylene oxide to hasten the ripening process, then shipped on a schedule that assures “peak” ripeness then neatly stacked on metal and plastic antiseptic shelves. Actually the same process with tomatoes — that’s why they are hard as a baseball and just as tasty.
A world away from passing a beat up pickup truck parked under a huge spreading oak with Spanish moss along a country road with a fellow in bib overalls and a hand scrawled sign barely large enough to see propped against a rusted bumper — “MELONS.” A lazy three point turn on an otherwise deserted road and you are headed back to visit. There are maybe 20 or 30 huge dark green watermelons, slightly dirty with a short stub of a stem still attached. There is one cut in half to entice passersby on the tailgate but half gone with the green rinds tossed in the grass. This fellow is also quality control for his own product.
These are not watermelons of the seedless variety favored by people raised on national grocery chain store offerings far removed from the international conglomerates that produces all their food or people who have never tasted a true low country dark soil produced watermelon — Carolina Cross, Charleston Grey, Jubilee, Georgia Rattlesnake or the Cannonball.
There is only a brief window during the summer when they become available and it is truly worth waiting for. There maybe only a couple opportunities but you have learned to be patient. You are not one that believes in instant gratification. Something wonderful and beautiful is worth waiting for. You look at your spouse in the same way.
You walk over to the truck and exchange pleasantries with the farmer. Talk about the weather, cattle prices, remembrances of growing up on a farm or visiting a family member that did but you now are far removed from the soil, the sound of a tractor as it slowly pulls a plow or hoeing early before the sun gets overhead.
You remember what your grandfather did — he would eye each one closely, pick a couple that are deep colored, not necessarily perfectly round since perfection is inside not outside. He takes his middle finger and thumps it hard and listens closely — it should sound deep. Not hollow. Character goes deep. He looks at the stem to see that it was picked at just the right time. If it is too green, then it won’t be a deep red inside. If too brown, it will not be crisp. Maturity is brief in life — on one side mistakes that you learn from are frequent but recoverable on the other side mistakes are painful. Several large misshapen melons make it into the back floor of the car.
Seems like forever getting back home with all 4 windows hand rolled down — you have to lean over the seat to get the ones in the back and those tiny side windows that you pull and twist the little handle and push open allows a small gust a wind against your face if you lean far forward against the metal dash — there is no seat belt — that will come years later in life to hold you back.
Once you step out you pull the back of your shirt and pants from your body since they are soaked with sweat. Those plastic dimpled seat covers don’t breathe in the summer heat. The heavy watermelons are laid in the shade of a tree in the front yard away from the azaleas that have long lost their beautiful spring flowers. No watermelon will be enjoyed until after supper. There is a right time for a truly good watermelon.
The unmatched flowery and chipped supper plates are washed and in the sink strainer drying. You remember those plates and memories come flowing back of your grandmother wiping her hands on her apron as she stands there on that worn linoleum floor beside that almost round GE fridge with the big shiny handles — like the door handles on the car you rode in but vertical. She says it’s time to cut the watermelon and heads for the front door carrying a really large butcher knife. Your grandmother is sweet and loving but with the site of that big knife you know she is capable of so much. She had to be.
She cuts it right there on the porch with dark low country dirt still clinging to it in smudges. A peck of dirt never hurt anyone. She cuts it in long thin slices so her grand children can sit in the grass, legs splayed eating it without a fork. No salt — a sacrilege forced on us by northerners so an aunt says. Someone jokes they also put ketchup on their steaks and sugar on their grits. It is dark red, crisp and sweet. Once through the center, seeds go flying. There is something satisfying in removing the seeds with teeth and fingers leaving the watermelon behind. Trying not to swallow too many seeds. Eating all the way to the rind. I always dreamed if I got rich enough I would just eat the middle out of watermelons and leave the rest for the crows and ground squirrels. Not lobster or fancy French snails — the centers out of watermelons.
There is being full after a good meal but there is being really full after all you can eat of a great local watermelon and filled with the memories of a long car ride in the summer heat, with windows rolled down, slowly passing fields and farms looking for that watermelon stand of freshly picked peak of the summer watermelons. My grandfather always said it was out there — you just had to be patient, listen closely to the thump and see what the stem tells you. Don’t worry about the dirty smudges. Patience, listening, observing and staying close to the soil — all words to live by.
Richard Lackey can be reached at email@example.com.