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Musical pairing – Watermelon Man by Mongo Santamaría
The first whack of my knife against the variegated green and the thick skin of a watermelon bursts open revealing pink-red flesh speckled with jet-black tear-dropped seeds. I’m reminded of the Little House on Ankeny Street where the scent of burning Kingsford briquettes permeate the neighborhood, screen doors smack shut, then screech open just as quickly as wire springs are yanked into action by small hands.
Smack! Screech! Smack! Sun-tanned bodies are dressed in cutoff jean shorts and tank tops; long hair is either restrained in plain rubber-bands saved from the last night’s rolled up newspaper or plaited into braids – and shoes could be found at the back of a closet but almost never on bare feet.
Dad tends the domed grill – hamburgers and/or hot dogs, Mom assembles a plate of individually-wrapped cheese slices, dill pickles, fresh-from-the-garden sliced tomatoes and single leaves of iceberg lettuce. Ketchup, mustard and mayo containers are carried to the long picnic table with smooth, worn benches bolted on either side. Paper plates, napkins and plasticware are placed on one end while bowls of vinegar cucumbers, potato salad and pork and beans are set down the center. Black olives are rationed 5 at a time, one for each finger plus a thumb, ice cold beer and soda are fished out of an ice chest and sipped straight from the can.
Most often dessert is a thick slice of watermelon; sometimes so large even an 8-inch Chef’s knife won’t do so the melon is cut halfway on one side, then the other. There is no such thing as a ‘seedless’ melon; there aren’t yet ‘individual’ or ‘baby-sized’ watermelons. No Agua-Fresca, no bits of Feta cheese to be sprinkled into a watermelon salad. Simply watermelon filled with slickery seeds that you don’t dare try to swallow for fear of choking – so we do the next best thing – spit them at each other hoping one sticks to clothing or even better, skin. We move away from the table and stand in the middle of the lawn chomping bite after cold bite of pink-red sweetness as it drips down our chins; cool, sticky juice menders from our fingers, down the wrist and then follows the length of the forearm, wandering toward the tip of the elbow and, in a steady stream of drips, disappears into the grass surrounding our feet.
Ants march their way up our legs and we battle the mosquitoes by swinging our arms wildly between each bite. Each side of the white-green rind tickles an ear and leaves bits of watermelon on our cheeks as our teeth rock back and forth near the edge; we slurp. A swipe from the back of our hands cleans our faces.
Bellies full, red lips smiling.
NOTE: My tried and true method for choosing the perfect watermelon is really simple: I thump it. And if the melon sounds hollow and also ‘feels’ like it vibrates ever so slightly when I’ve ‘thumped’ – well then that’s my cue that it’s a good one – meaning crisp, crunchy and sweet.
Good watermelon should also be served well-chilled; I refrigerate at least a day before serving.
If you must ‘fancy it up’, you can add bits of feta cheese, oil-brined olives, salt and pepper to chunks of cold watermelon.
Or you can puree watermelon in a blender, fill a tumbler about one-third full, add ice cubes and finish filling with seltzer water for a cool Agua Fresca.
But in my humble opinion, a good watermelon doesn’t need anything more than a hot summer day, BBQ in the backyard, good friends and good conversation!