Watermelon is summer. Or at least it’s one of the season’s brightest, juiciest, most delicious symbols.
Never mind that it’s available all year long these days. In summertime, watermelon really comes into its own. Its flesh always seems cool, even if it hasn’t been refrigerated, and its juices dripping down your chin and fingers when you bite into it are sheer summer sensuality. Even the seeds are summery: Spitting them as far as you can is a classic campfire game (though they’re actually edible, and are said to be full of nutrients — and, no, if you swallow them, a watermelon won’t grow in your stomach). Oh, and another plus: Watermelon is, not surprisingly, full of water, so is an excellent way to help you stay hydrated.
Let’s face it: A summer without watermelon is like, well, a summer without pool parties and trips to the beach and backyard barbecues. No summer at all, in other words.
Known botanically as Citrullus lanatus, watermelon is not a true melon but actually a gourd related to pumpkins, squashes, and cucumbers. The typical traditional watermelon is red-fleshed with black seeds and in the shape correctly called a prolate spheroid — though most folks call it oval. There are also yellow-fleshed watermelons, though, and some are bred these days without seeds or nearly so. Some are also rounder than others — and the Japanese have taken to breeding novelty examples that are actually cubes.
The fruit’s ancestral home is Africa, though scientists can’t agree on exactly which part of the continent it came from. The ancient Egyptians cultivated it as much as 4,000 years ago. By 500 A.D., it had spread around the Mediterranean. Watermelon came to the Americas with the slave trade — contributing to the origin of the fruit’s identity as a racist trope — and was first grown on this side of the Atlantic in Florida in the 16th century.
In his 1894-vintage novel “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson,” Mark Twain said of watermelon, “It is the chief of this world’s luxuries … When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.”
Watermelon’s flavor is indeed remarkable — sweet, simultaneously intense and subtle, and very faintly sour. It is also a flavor that is immediately identifiable, and not quite like anything else. That — along, no doubt, with the fruit’s identification with carefree summers — is probably why food and beverage companies (among other enterprises) so often choose to imbue their products with its savor.
Sometimes, these products are fun. Other times, they are just plain silly. Two things you can be sure of when it comes to most watermelon-flavored products: Only rarely are they flavored with real watermelon; and the genuine article will almost certainly be better.