sugar baby: a tone poem to watermelon, in six excruciating acts

Act one: intention

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In celebration of the onrushing summer, with its promise of watermelon just around the corner, I’m going to post this bit of ridiculousness that has been languishing in my drafts folder for about seven months. I don’t have any good pictures of watermelon around because, as you will see, I would never have the self-control to photograph a ‘melon before hoovering it down, so please make do with these pictures of me in a summery hairstyle in my ode-to-pink office reading a magazine devoted to all things watermelon. (Oh man, I’ve got to take a close up photo of those POSTED signs in the background: they are our “Vegan land–no hunting!!” signs for the land!)

I recently came across this little tidbit in Gourmet (August 2008, P. 111):

It’s a stunning but true fact that at this time of year many people actually get tired of eating great big juicy slabs of watermelon. They gamely take a slice each and then the melon (naturally, you staggered away from the farmer’s market carrying the largest one) sits there in the fridge, looking reproachful and blocking the mayonnaise, the cold roast chicken, the children’s juice boxes – everything, in fact, that you really need.

W

T

F

!!!!

!!!!

!!!!

THE MAYONNAISE?

THE COLD ROAST CHICKEN?

THE CHILDREN’S JUICE BOXES?

Everything that you really need???

Lady, um, you need none of that shit. Especially in AUGUST. Juice boxes? Make watermelon juice! Jesus H. Christ in the morning.

But the watermelon-hatred continues! Page 50 of the same issue has a recipe for Frozen Watermelon-Lime Bars that begins: “‘We’re having watermelon for dessert,’ my mother announced. She said this as if it was supposed to be some sort of special treat, but she wasn’t fooling me.” Flummoxed, I am. Flummozed, which I misspelled but seems somehow to be a more fitting word for my feelings. I know I’m out of touch with food and kids and kids & food and mainstream people and what they eat and feed their kids, but: wow.

Having the political views and ethical beliefs that I do, and mingling with the mainstream world as little as I do, there is obviously a lot of weird shit in Gourmet that I heartily disagree with and/or find completely incomprehensible. I’m used to flipping past articles on veal chops and ads for Spanish cheeses and $50,000 kitchen renovations to get to the amazing food writing, interesting food trends, and often inspiring recipes. But those paragraphs up there are worse than sound and fury signifying nothing—they are meaningless strings of words that add up to complete and utter puzzlement. “A stunning but true fact”? Seriously? Oh, America. Mayonnaise over watermelon? Really? Is this where we’re at? I had no idea.

I’ve been wanting to write about my giant love for watermelon on the blog for a while, but something always stopped me. I finally realized what it was: the thought of me posting a big food porny ode to watermelon and everyone chiming in with “that’s why you’re so skinny” in the comments made me so pre-angry that I couldn’t even start the post (more on this below). But I think my teeny little group of commenters is above that, so here we go.

Act two: sexy

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WATERMELON: THE CLITORIS OF FRUITS

So, the durian is the king of fruits (and, as befits a dude, it stinks), the mangosteen is the queen (complex, beautiful, requiring of knowledge in order to avoid astringency).

I hereby crown the watermelon as the clit of fruits.

Watermelons are different for everyone: some people only need a little, and some people can take a lot. Once you discover how wonderful a really good watermelon is—a good, clean, well-bred watermelon at the peak of its potency—you will think of nothing but watermelon for weeks, or, in my case, for the rest of your life. Once you have that one life-changing watermelon, you can never deny the power of the pink. Or red. Or yellow. I used to think that even a mediocre watermelon was still worth eating, but lately I can’t bring myself to choke down even one bite of the dry, whitish, thready, pre-cut sadnesses masquerading as watermelons you see on fruit platters and in fruit cups from delis. We’re all going to die far too soon, and I don’t want to waste even one inch of stomach space with filler food.

Don’t believe me that watermelon is the sexiest of fruits? Look at the gallery of Thai watermelon carving photos here. Now that’s sexy.

Act three: strategy

I usually take a week off from cooking during watermelon season. I’m not going to pretend that I am so hardcore in love with watermelon that I actually plan my vacations around the fruit—it’s more that I usually have a friend come to visit or a trip to take during watermelon season that provides a good excuse to take some time off—but I’m also not going to pretend that it’s not at least part of the reason I plan not to have food in the house.

Whenever I take a week off, I have this giant problem: there is nothing to eat if I am not cooking for my clients. If my sweetheart is on tour, I will not cook for myself. I might sauté up some mushrooms if my mushroom guy gives me some extras, and I will make myself peanut noodles or a nice cashew mac & cheese. If there are greens around, I will sauté greens with garlic, and maybe turn them into a quick miso noodle soup. Other than that, I rely on the freezer and what I call “The Emergency Awesome Meal”: months-old homemade kimchi and rice.

When I am lucky enough to take a week off during watermelon season, however, none of the above applies, because all I do is eat watermelon.

Just to be clear: All I do is eat watermelon, then think about how quickly I can pee out the watermelon I just ate so I can eat more watermelon.

Sometimes I will sneak in a tomato sandwich or peanut noodles for dinner, but as far as I’m concerned, watermelon is nature’s perfect food and there is no need to do anything but eat it, and nothing but it, until the season is over.

Act four: preachy

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It’s embarrassing for me to admit my giant love of watermelon, because invariably some idiot will say “that’s how you keep your figure.” I don’t know why this seemingly complimentary remark makes me want to punch said person, but it REALLY REALLY REALLY does. Here’s how I “keep my figure”:

I eat nothing all day then gorge on noodles
I eat nothing but watermelon some days
I eat nothing but truffle scraps some days
I eat three balanced meals some days
I eat nothing but raw salad mix (Kira’s Mix!) some days
I eat nothing but candy, gum, and cake some days
I eat two well-balanced sit down meals with a glass of wine some days (almost never)
I eat little bits and pieces while standing up and no meals at all (most days)
I get up in the middle of the night and make myself ultra oily pasta with olive oil, garlic and greens. I eat it in bed and fall asleep immediately afterward (more days than I would readily admit).
Sometimes I eat giant meals and sometimes I eat tiny meals. When in restaurants, I tend to eat small meals and take home food for later, except if I’m really hungry, whereupon I will eat everything.
I eat maddeningly slowly and I eat completely unthinkingly. I know chefs are supposed to say a prayer over every mouthful or something, but I always eat while doing something else, talking or reading or emailing.

In short: like everyone else, I eat all different things and have no routine whatsoever. And I happen to have the body I happen to have (which, like most bodies, is skinny in some parts and super squishy in others—in my case, in the areas where chefs should have some squishiness in order to be taken seriously.). I don’t know why things are the way they are, but I think it’s safe to say a taste for watermelon—something only available two months out of the year—has little to do with my body type. I know people who eat like I do and weigh more, and I know people who eat like I do and weigh less. Argh argh argh.

I’ll tell you something else, too: I never eat any protein. I know vegans aren’t supposed to admit that, and of course it’s not exactly true, but if left to my own devices, I will never just sauté up some tempeh, even homemade tempeh like mine that is so special. To be honest, I pretty much hate tofu. I’d rather have noodles plus fat and greens, so noodles plus fat and greens is what I eat. And watermelon. And my iron counts are great, I am ridiculously healthy (Lyme Disease not withstanding) and have amazing energy and stamina. So fuck you, protein freaks. I’ve been eating this way for sixteen years. The China Study taught me that I’m OK, and blood tests prove it.

The only big change in my eating habits came when I was in cooking school. During a class on Ayurveda, I learned that my specific dosha (an Ayurvedic way of classifying body types) was a type that needed a lot of oil to feel healthy (vata-pitta). I’d always felt this in my bones, but had fallen into the “oil is bad” trap. After that class I started pouring on the e.v.o., and everyone in my life will tell you I began to look healthier and happier than ever. I eat more olive oil than you can possibly imagine, people. Eat oil!!!!!

I began to like my body more after college and while in cooking school, when I was walking a lot and eating a shitload of fat (relatively speaking). These days I don’t hesitate to make myself a really fatty vinaigrette and eat it out of an avocado with nothing else for lunch (it’s called avocat vinaigrette, I first had it at a café across from Sacre Coeur, and it’s the best lunch ever. Even more awesomely, it could also be translated as “lawyer vinaigrette.”). I think that a scale would have said that I actually lost a few pounds during this period and my weight settled on whatever it is now, but since I have never owned a scale, I couldn’t really tell you.

Act five: care and use

DSCF9065My #1 watermelon rule: Seedless watermelon is an abomination.

I was talking about this with Q, a then-five-year-old [now 6!] pal of mine, a while ago and Q said:
“I just eat the seeds.”
I said, “I do too! If you don’t eat the seeds how is a watermelon plant going to grow inside you?” And his mom, Katy, just looked at me with that “oy” kind of a look that even shiksa mamas give their nutty friends when they feed their kids nonsense.
“Anyway,” I continued, “if you do spit out the seeds, you can spit them in the same place all summer and maybe next summer a watermelon plant will grow there!”
Katy raised her eyebrows and said “You’ve been waiting for that to happen your whole life, haven’t you?”
“Um. Yes.”
“Has it ever happened?”
“Um. No.”

I have grown watermelons before, though. As a child we had a crazy garden that mainly existed to hide the pot plants, and one of the crops we grew was watermelon. Those were nice watermelons, chubby and long, long long. Striated and sun-deprived on the bottoms, they would make that sweet “pop!” when you cracked them open. That was in the hellscape of the Southwestern US. Two years ago I tried to grow watermelons in upstate New York. Because I refuse to start seeds indoors and also refuse to not grow plants from seed (both seem like cheating), my garden is always a complete failure, and all I ever grow these days are flowers, herbs, and fifteen kinds of basil.

My beloved “moon and stars” watermelon required seemingly hourly watering (we must have watered the shit out of those childhood watermelons, why don’t I remember that?), and by the time the first frost was threatening, my watermelons were the size of my tiniest cat Cleo’s head. I sat on the patio and ate them anyway. They were pure white inside, without even a pink blush. But they were my own watermelons, and I crunched my way through them, sitting in a sunny spot on the back porch.

Though that evening I suffered from stomach cramps worse than anything my red romance* has ever bestowed upon me, I repeated the whole entire performance the next year. That year I grew a special variety touted as a watermelon specifically developed for Siberian gardeners. “As long as you start the seeds indoors,” the packet promised, all hopeful and shit, “even the coldest climate can provide beautiful watermelons!” Of course, I did not start the seeds indoors.

These days I buy my watermelons, 8 every week for me and me alone, from Pete Taliaferro. His farm is two streets away from me, so I could almost ride my bike there, if 8 watermelons would fit in my side baskets. I am sure they do not know that the watermelons are just for me. His watermelons are, I believe, Sugar Babies, and I can easily eat one in a sitting—each one is just about the size of my head, or slightly bigger. Sugar babies are just fine, but I still dream of the long watermelons of my childhood.

I don’t dream of long afternoons spent reading and spitting watermelon seeds, because though I did have those afternoons they were fraught with the things my childhood was fraught with, and I don’t care to remember them. But the watermelons. People tell me those long varieties are available in supermarkets. I can’t buy a watermelon at a supermarket, people. People would see me. It would be humiliating.

Act six: eat

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Watermelon slices with sea salt. Watermelon with freshly-ground fennel seeds mixed with salt. Watermelon drizzled with rosewater. Watermelon drizzled with pomegranate molasses. Watermelon with reduced balsamic vinegar (throw in a few lavender buds while it’s reducing). Watermelon with cardamom powder. Watermelon with chile powder à la that mango-carved-into-a-flower-and-dunked-in-chile-powder thing you can get on the street in New York from tiny Oaxacan women. Watermelon with a vinaigrette made with serrano chilies, Champagne vinegar, thyme, lime juice, olive oil, and chopped shallots. Watermelon with raspberry vinegar**. Pickled watermelon rind. Watermelon and whisky. Roasted watermelon. Grilled watermelon with lime basil. Smoked watermelon. Watermelon with Chinese five spice powder. Watermelon with Japanese seven spice mixture. Watermelon cubes in a salad with baby red amaranth leaves and arugula leaves, a lemon vinaigrette, and sunflower sprouts. Red Passion Salad, which friends of mine encountered in Oaxaca: rounds of watermelon cut to the exact size of thick tomato slices stacked up nice and tall and sprinkled with sea salt and pesto. Use yellow watermelon and yellow tomatoes and freak out your friends.

Icy-cold supermarket watermelon in the backyard in the morning before it gets too hot out, spitting the seeds out to the side while reading The Bell Jar, your dark brown bangs hanging in your eyes, juice running down your wrist and staining the pages like blood, the summer you were 15. Yellow seedless watermelon at your sweetheart’s mother’s wooden kitchen table, grown by your partner’s childhood friend who is trying to be a farmer but it’s driving him crazy, eaten without talking, juice running down your wrists, your bleached and dyed violet hair wild and tangled the summer you were 19 and had just fallen in love. Heirloom flavor-bomb watermelon at the kitchen table you share with that same sweetheart, grown by friends three blocks away, eaten without talking, juice running down your wrists, your dyed black hair tied back neatly the summer you are 30, and still in love.

.watermelon-radish

Watermelon radish, photographed at Bloodroot!

..

*And now I have shared with you my private name for my time o’ the month. My sweetheart used to work with a band called…well, I’m not going to tell you their name because I’ll get in trouble. They were sweet kids, except for the ones who weren’t. They had a few mildly harrowing tours together, then the band broke up except I think some people might still be in a slightly different version of the band with the same name. Or maybe not, who knows, I can’t follow the twists and turns of hipstery Williamsburgy bands. I do know that now other people in the band are in another band called The Red Romance. The Red Romance immediately made sense to me as the only logical thing to call what will get a Hell’s Angel their red wings patch (NSFW!). By extension, I took to calling My Aunt Flo my Red Romance, and there you go.

**Come on over and I’ll give you some of my homemade raspberry vinegar made with nothing but raspberries, sugar, and time—it’s pink and tart and amazing and I drink it mixed with a little seltzer. If I make my own vinegar mother, does that make me a vinegar grandmother?

18 Responses to “sugar baby: a tone poem to watermelon, in six excruciating acts”

  1. kt

    we pretty much eat watermelon non-stop all season long in our house, my hub and myles are TOTALLY addicted. and Pete T. is one of my favorite people on the planet.

    Reply
  2. orlande

    this is by far, hands down, and all that my favorite post of yours i’ve ever read. finally, someone to grasp my utter *fetishizing* of fresh-y things.

    Reply
  3. Calvin Schiraldi

    Jesus H. Christ, Lagusta. Where to begin?
    15 types of basil: I’m infinitely jealous and infinitely impressed. I need to get my act together.
    Watermelon: Amen. Our habits ARE something to be proud of.
    Over-stressing of protein: Couldn’t agree more. Even vegetarians cannot resist the rhetoric of our zealously carnivorous society.

    Finally a brief story from yesterday:
    Because Mother’s Day was actually several weeks ago I decided that I needed to make my belated gift extra special. I dropped by The Cheese Plate, stocked up on your remarkable truffles, hid them in the yard and crafted a whimsical, rhyming scavenger hunt (culminating in a gorgeous basket planted full of herbs) which was sure to blow mom away. Unfortunately my dear schnauzer Maude apparently shares my enthusiasm for your confections and found some of them first. Much to my dismay. Fortunately her digestive system seems to have responded remarkably well (I guess another indicator of just how extraordinary your truffles are) and I have an excuse to go buy more.

    Reply
  4. lagusta

    Awww, thanks for loving my love, everyone.
    Calvin: 7 types of the basil are already dead. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. Cinnamon basil is weird, that’s what I’ve learned so far. Lime basil, also meh. But lemon basil, YUM.
    And I am so happy nothing bad happened to your dog!!!! Oh my. The scavenger hunt sounds AMAZING though!

    Reply
  5. Rachel Rabbit

    You made me intensely regretful for planting pumpkins instead of watermelon in my garden this year. But no, I decided I have to have home grown Jack-o-lanterns for the fall. Damn my goth. Oh well, they’ll be pretty awesome too.

    Reply
  6. brittany

    getting caught up with you makes me so happy and this was the perfect place to start. also, i’m sure you can find very willing volunteers to stealthily buy long watermelons in the supermarket and deliver them to you. <3

    Reply
  7. motabike

    Holy shit!! You just stole that right out my head! Almost every word in that article has been repeating over and over for the past month, we’ve had melons in FL since the middle of May i think, and i’m still not sick of them! I love watermelon.. mmmm… Perfection!

    Reply
  8. Anna

    Cute story! It is late, I shall read more tomorrow.

    Wondering if you have ever grown Thai Baby Watermelon? I’m in Northern California, 30 miles east of Oakland. I am starting seeds now and hope to produce a few small watermelons by season’s end. Please visit my website. I’ve started an amazing non-profit to harvest fruit and other produce to deliver to local food pantries. I’m a one-woman and toddler operation. 10,000 pounds since mid-February. Other volunteers are just now catching on board.

    Nice blog you have.

    Reply
  9. Greg

    Here in Vermont I’ve got sugar baby watermelons growing in a pot with a trellis outside and I have been growing very impatient for a taste. After reading this article, I think I am going to have to break down and buy one to eat while I am waiting! Much respect and admiration – there are many of us thriving outside of society while living in its midst. Oh and just once, try starting the seeds indoors by a bright window, or make a little cold frame outdoors out of plastic or glass. Even cut-off 2 liter plastic bottles work very well as cloches. It’s worth the joy of eating a delicious meal of your own produce.

    Reply
  10. d.bear

    i hate the 4th of july. thank you for making it a better day.

    Reply

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