Eating watermelon is one of the most symbolic rituals of summer that I can think of, especially for a Southerner like me.
Whether it’s a simple slice enjoyed on the beach or as the base for a margarita, there’s nothing better than some “sweet meat” on a hot August afternoon. Heck, I even like watermelon grilled with a little olive oil and salt and pepper — six minutes on one side only. Goes well with crab cakes. So, naturally, when I heard about a watermelon market over in the town of Laurel on the western side of Sussex County, I had to go check it out.
The proper name for the market is the Laurel Farmer’s Auction Market. One of the oldest established produce markets on the East Coast; it’s where you want to be right now to get in on the melon action in Sussex County. It’s also where I met the watermelon man.
The watermelon man was lean and tanned, with short hair, a big Saxon schnozz, and a hawk-like gaze. He kind of reminded me of that gay Welsh rugger Gareth Thomas, only older and not so hot. But whereas Gareth plays with balls, this fella works with watermelons. Lots and lots of watermelons. He and his crew follow the season and the harvest from Florida up through the Carolinas to the Delmarva peninsula and then back down to Florida and over to Mexico. He was kind enough to give me a little tour and tell me all about Delaware watermelons.
Some of the nation’s finest watermelons are grown right here in Sussex County on 2,700 acres of well-drained, sandy soils. The western side of the county is really the epicenter of the industry, and it’s been that way since the 1850s when farmers filled up boats with watermelons and sent them down the Nanticoke River and on to Baltimore and points beyond.
Delaware watermelons begin to ripen in July and the picking continues through mid-September. So far, about a million pounds of “sweet meat” have come through the Laurel market. And come it has, piled high in the beds of pickup trucks and on special watermelon buses (old school buses with the tops ripped off and the seats and windows stripped out.) Some of them are even “customized.” Pimp my bus.
Why school buses? Well, first of all, there’s very little demand for old ones. They’re cheap. And because school buses are automatic drive, they work pretty well in the sandy watermelon fields. Each bus can hold about a thousand melons.
Delaware’s watermelon crop is valued at about $11 million annually. It’s serious business. But, when you’re standing in the old 1940s-era wooden market looking at all the watermelon buses, it still feels kind of quaint.
The crop yield has so far been good because we’ve had hot a lot of dry weather. Too much water causes a watermelon to swell too quickly and dilutes the sugar in the fruit. Too much rain and the melon may become misshapen or even split open. The melons this summer are just right and I really wanted to grab one off a bus. Unfortunately, I had missed the actual market, which occurs in the morning.
Forced to search for a local melon on the road, I came across a little produce manned by a rather hefty woman wearing pink striped shorts and a green tank top. Please, I asked, could she pick me out a good ripe Sussex County watermelon? Despite my culinary prowess with the big fruit, I’m notoriously inept at picking one out. She pointed to one of the greener melons and hollered that it was “sweet to the rind.” When I asked how she could tell, she instructed me to roll it over.
All watermelons have a flat side from how they grow, and the wider the spread and the more yellow the color, the sweeter and riper the melon. This one looked pretty good, so I gave her my two dollars and put the watermelon beside me in the air conditioned cab of the pickup so it would cool down on the hour long drive back to Rehoboth.
Another accepted way to pick out a ripe watermelon is to knock on it. A thud indicates the watermelon is ripe while a hollow sounds means it’s still got a way to go. Because I can never trust my ear, I was excited to learn there’s a new iPhone app to help me pick out a perfect melon. It’s called iWatermelon.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Here’s how it works. You simply put your iPhone on top of the melon and then thump it three times. The iPhone senses whether or not it’s ripe. I kid you not. I actually downloaded it and tested it out in the Whole Foods Market in Washington where I went through four watermelons before the app finally identified a ripe one. People stared, but low and behold the melon was indeed super sweet and ready to eat.
Feeling this must be some sort of scam, I tried the app on my head. It didn’t register, which pleased me. When I put it on my belly and tapped three times, however, the app flashed and told me this was “a fair one.” Hmm….Guess that makes me a real watermelon man too.