A Complicated Berry

I eat watermelon almost every day from late June to mid-September. Occasionally I buy one of those pale pink fleshed, ghostly flavored wedges available later in the year, especially if a fever or sore throat is making the rounds of the house. Serve it very chilled in a bowl with a few chips of ice and be sure the patient eats as much as possible. This is an ancient and very beneficial remedy you may want to keep handy.

It is high season for watermelon and I thought what better food is there to talk about today. Not that I do anything more special than occasionally dusting it with tajin the way I once ate it in Tucson. If you’re ever in Tucson, drive out along South Sixth Avenue until you see crowds milling around a clutch of trucks that are known locally as roach coaches. It doesn’t make any sense why they’re called that because the trucks offer the freshest (and cleanest) authentic Mexican food north of the border. (Other kinds of food are available, too, but the Mexican offerings really stand out.) Watermelon is generally served in a cup along with mango and whatever other fruit is in season, all covered in a generous amount of fiery red chili or tajin. Trust me–it’s addictive.

Credit: Arizona Daily Star

People grill, stew, stir fry, mash and, of course, freeze it. There’s evidence its rinds have been pickled for millenniums. Watermelon is also a reason to put aside any semblance of social graces as the juices run down chins and through fingers, the instinct to commence a seed-spitting contest too hard to forbid.

There may be mass confusion about what it actually is. Oklahoma claims it as the state vegetable. It’s usually sold in the fruit section. However, watermelon is a berry. What everyone does agree upon is that it’s abnormally good for you and contains a wide range of health and curative powers beyond soothing a fever.

What, then, is not to love about watermelon? Unfortunately there is, falling in line with other racial realities we’re grappling with this summer. Spaniard conquistadors (by way of the Moor’s conquest of Spain) planted it in Florida, the colonist grew it up north and stolen Africans brought seeds over from their countries and succeeded in making it a reliable crop and essential food source throughout the south. After their emancipation, former slaves found that selling watermelons was a viable way to earn a living. And it is with this that the berry’s troubles started as its ability to sustain a free people quickly became a symbol of their inferiority.

It’s hard to believe that we haven’t all seen or heard examples of how, in the past, watermelon was used to caricature Blacks as lazy, shiftless, and less than human. At least I thought it was in the past until, in doing research for this piece, I came upon an insightful article written by William Black in The Atlantic: During a peaceful protest over Michael Brown’s killing, among the displays the marchers walked by–pass the white robe wearers, Confederate flags, and a good number of cocked guns–was a heap of watermelons, fried chicken and 40-ounce bottles of beer. The marchers kept silently walking on, didn’t even give these troubles a wide berth. But imagine what they must have felt beyond the flinch of one more everyday stupidity thrown at them. It is a devilish, incomprehensible mind that corrupts the virtue of food and robs it of its succor.

I still love watermelon–it hid in a bowl under a large plop of cottage cheese this morning. It’s right, though, that I keep in mind how easy it was, and continues to be, to indelibly rob a portion of innocence from a people’s table.