While dining with friends last week, the lunchtime discussion turned to “What is Mississippi’s most quintessential food?” Several options were discussed— blueberries, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, catfish and watermelon. I think arguments can be made for all those foodstuffs. If pressed, I would probably have to say fried catfish. But for the sake of today’s column, we’re going with watermelon.
We are in the peak of watermelon season. Being in the food business, it helps to know the seasons of food. But even if I didn’t know that this is watermelon season, a 15-minute drive up U.S. 49 would tell the story. One can’t travel 20 miles on a Mississippi highway in the summer without passing a man selling watermelons out of the back of his pick-up truck on the side of the road.
I love people who set up on the side of a road and sell homegrown vegetables. They go by many names— truck farmers, pushcart peddlers, hucksters, truck patch farmers, and truck peddlers. I call my guy, “The watermelon man.” Sometimes he’s “The sweet potato man.”
It’s a true Mississippi treasure to have these guys set up on the side of the road. The use hand-painted signs on scrap pieces of wood. I love that. To me, it’s one of those charming things that adds color and flavor to life in this state. It is “Pure Mississippi.”
My friend and collaborator, watercolor artist, Wyatt Waters, loves painting watermelons. I’ve never asked him why, but I suppose it has something to do the whole “quintessential” thing. He’s a southern guy who loves all things Mississippi.
Waters and I have performed at over 150 dual demos since we started working together. Sometimes the dual demo is for a charity, other times it’s to promote a book, many times its affiliated with a speaking engagement to a corporate convention or the annual meeting of an organization. During the dual demo, I demonstrate how to cook a four-course meal from one of our books while Waters paints a still-life watercolor. We banter back and forth, and usually feed those in attendance. We have hosted demos for as few as 24 people and as many as 600. At the end our 90 minutes. My crew and I have fed the audience lunch or dinner, and Waters has completed his still life.
Waters usually picks objects to paint in his still life that loosely relate to the event or group we are hosting. Watermelons make it into the still life quite often. Years ago, Waters and I were hosting a dual-demo event in New York’s Flatiron District. The entire event was based on a piece I wrote that ended up in our first book entitled “My South.” The event was called My South and featured chefs and artists from all over the region. Waters and I headlined and hosted a dual demo.
Worried that he wouldn’t be able to find a watermelon that lived up to the standard he had grown accustomed to with Mississippi watermelons— even though America’s largest city has dozens fresh markets stretched out among the Five Boroughs— Waters packed a watermelon into his carry-on luggage.
That is 100% pure Wyatt.
It was only a couple of years after 9-11 and, to my surprise, the crew somehow allowed him to carry the watermelon onto the airplane. He lugged that watermelon all over Manhattan for a couple of days until we did our dual demo. The event was a huge success, and I will admit that the Mississippi watermelon that Waters chose was a perfect specimen.
Recently Waters was on the lookout for a watermelon to paint as a part of the still life on our upcoming book’s cover. He wanted a seeded watermelon because that is the most accurate representation for that fruit. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a watermelon with seeds anywhere. After checking several grocery stores and outdoor markets, he sent out a request on Facebook. Within an hour someone recommended a fruit stand where they sell watermelons with seeds in them.
Once he was painting a seedless watermelon, and had to stick small cut-up pieces of black cardboard into the cross section of the watermelon to give it the appearance of seeds. I’ve seen the painting and couldn’t tell a difference.
Seedless watermelons are all the rage these days. It’s baffling to me. I want my watermelon to have seeds. I don’t see them as a nuisance, but as tiny governors that force me to slow down while eating a watermelon. Waters agrees. He says that he’s got a plan for the biggest gag gift since the pet rock— packets of seedless watermelon seeds (that are empty of course). I’d buy a pack.
I don’t believe in seedless watermelons. How are they even grown? Aren’t seeds required for most fruits to grow? I did a little online research into how a watermelon can be seedless and the explanation dove into something having to do with 22 male pollen chromosome cells being cross-pollinated with 44 female chromosomes from watermelon flowers, blah, blah, blah. Honestly it gave me a headache, so I stopped reading.
My wife likes to purchase the plastic containers of freshly cut watermelon in the produce section of the grocery store. I don’t condone such behavior, yet I will admit it is certainly convenient. I can remember arguing with my daughter— who was five-years old at the time— when I showed her a whole watermelon, she said, “Daddy, that’s not a watermelon. Watermelons are red, not green” It shook me for a minute, until I realized that her only exposure to watermelon, at that point, was pre-cut through a clear plastic container (it embarrassed me to type the previous paragraph).
I wonder what the watermelon guy who sells on the side of the road thinks about seedless watermelons? Does he think they are an abomination or just smart marketing for people who don’t like to spit out seeds? Likely the latter, since he’s in the business of selling watermelons, and these days people want theirs, sans seeds.
View today’s recipe: RSJ’s Summer Watermelon Sorbet