- Food and Cooking
How to tell if a Watermelon is Really Ripe
Growing Up and Working on a Truck Farm
My wife and I can be walking in Costco or Safeway, and my wife will see a woman leaning over a bin of watermelons pondering which one to choose. It must be one of life's greatest puzzles, how to pick a really ripe watermelon. My wife will go over to her and ask, “Looking for a really good one?”
Almost always the woman will look up bewildered. And most of the time the response is “You thump them, don't you?”
I am immediately swept back to Spring Valley, in El Cajon, California to a 30 acre truck farm in the late 1950's. I am a gawky preteen, it is summer, and it is harvest time. This is one of the last vestiges of the reason for the summer vacations; children helping their parents bring in the harvest.
We didn't rely on the profits from the truck farm for our income. First of all a 30 acre truck farm wouldn't produce enough of anything except maybe marijuana to support a family of 7. My stepfather was a salesman for farm and landscape equipment and I guess he was pretty good at it. The farm was the result of the sale of a small bar and steakhouse my mother received in the divorce settlement from my real father.
Truck Farm? Thirty acres of bottom land. A creek ran through an area that was covered in trees and rocks that accounted for about seven acres. There was about twenty-two acres of farm-able land. No quaint farmhouse, no barn, two wells, and a road in for trucks. The primary crops of summer were corn, alfalfa, and melons. In the winter it was lettuce, all kinds of lettuce.
We lived in a ranch house about five miles away where we rented out corrals and stables to others who could afford the luxury of horses.
Fresh from the Field
Working in the Fields
My summers were dedicated to hating working in the alfalfa field, the corn field and the melon field. To this day I cannot eat alfalfa sprouts, the smell brings back a sickening aroma of alfalfa multiplied by the heat and humidity of working in 90 degree summer days. Working the corn field was worse, because the heat and humidity are combined with corn pollen down my back between me and my t-shirt. The funny thing is I still love corn.
Working the melon field consisted of checking for pests, keeping the irrigation flowing, and getting the skunks out of the irrigation pipes. I suppose I liked working the melon fields. Before harvest it was fairly light work, and the melons didn't smell. Once flowers began to become melons, the primary job was to leave the melons alone, and make sure they got plenty of water without drowning them. I didn't have to harvest melons, because I was too small.
I only remember the farm foreman's name as Sam, he was an Indian native to Southern California, he knew the best stories and he was the only really good thing about that truck farm. He was an excellent farmer and knew when it was time to harvest. It was from him I learned the four secrets to picking a ripe watermelon.
Back to COSTCO
And this brings me back to the store and the woman thumping watermelons. Melons thump, and hallow doesn't mean anything. Four secrets is all anyone needs to pick out a good watermelon. Following the secrets will guarantee the melon is ripe, and ready to eat. It may not be the best melon in the bin, but if you are observant it will be mighty tasty.
Secret Number 1 - The Sweet Spot
The watermelon should have a sweet spot. That spot should be oval or round in shape and should be white, white-yellow, or yellow. The sweet spot should not be on the end where the vine was attached to the watermelon. The melon should be green, the deeper the better, but that depends on the variety and shouldn't be overemphasized. A well defined sweet spot means the watermelon was left alone. That is good because the vine was not moved or twisted so the flow of water and nutrients to the melon was not interrupted. That is why you don't want the sweet spot around the vines attachment, because that means the watermelon applied pressure to the vine as it sat on it, interrupting the flow of water and nutrients.
How Sweet it is
Smooth and Waxy?
The melon should have a waxy feel to the skin. This is the condition of a healthy melon. Lightly run you finger tips across the skin; it should leave a faint mark, as if you have removed a light layer of wax from the skin.
So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed
The melon should be firm with no soft spots. Melons rot from within, and a soft spot on the skin is the first sign that a melon is over ripe, or have been mishandled. If it has a soft spot, put it back.
When You Want a Clean Break
The stem should show a clean break. If it is a clean break, the melon snapped from the vine and it is ready to eat. If there is evidence of a vine, then the melon was not ready to pick and it is not yet ripe.
An Innie or An Outy? An Innie
Beat Drums, Not Watermelon
Thumping is for drums, not watermelons. When I follow these four secrets, I always get a ripe melon. If I shirk on any of them, the melon may be okay, but it is not great. Summer is about over in the Northern Hemisphere, so if you want some melon, ribs and beans, now is the time as autumn creeps into our lives. For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, now is the time to plant, and for Pete's sake, once the flowers on the melon vine began to disappear, leave them alone until they are ready to be harvested. If a melon is sitting on the vine, carefully shift the vine out from under it. Then leave it alone!
The woman at the bin, when she saw me again she smiled, “You were right.” she said