In the fervor of June, heirloom watermelon varieties flourish in yard gardens and family-run microfarms all through the American South. Their scarlet-colored flesh, stippled with black seeds, is a placing relic of summers previous compared to the seedless grocery store varieties.
“I don’t believe in seedless watermelon — that is against my religion,” stated Gabrielle E.W. Carter, a multimedia artist and gardener in Apex, N.C. The presence of ebony kernels is equal to successful a free ticket from a lottery scratch-off; it’s a modest thrill.
Among the heirlooms Ms. Carter grows are Georgia rattlesnake watermelons.Credit…Eamon Queeney for The New York Times
All season lengthy, you’ll discover watermelon consuming in its purest kind — palms clenching the rinds over gingham tablecloths; all pleasure and no tropes — at household reunions, at get-togethers on terraces and round patio hearth pits. Consuming the fruit is a sacrament of an American summer season, and, for a lot of Black Americans, a should for Juneteenth, the Texas-born vacation gaining nationwide recognition that’s celebrated with pink punch, strawberry spoon cake and dry-rubbed ribs.
Indigenous to the African continent, watermelons are kin to cucumbers, pumpkins and loofah. Over the previous 50 years, the black-seeded varieties — prized by watermelon lovers — slowly vanished from produce aisles. Many of right this moment’s business watermelons, which customers can discover piled Jenga-style in outsized cardboard packing containers outdoors of grocery shops, are seedless, the results of cross-pollination (not genetic modification). Some of those watermelons could have translucent, edible immature seeds or “coats.”
Fans longing for seed-studded sugar child watermelons, a deep inexperienced icebox sort, or rectangular Charleston grays monitor neighborhood associations’ Facebook teams for sightings of the “melon man,” who, like Santa Claus, might be all locations directly, his truck full of heirloom varieties from South Carolina and Florida.
Sugar child watermelons, like this one from Ladybird Farm in Hull, Ga., are sufficiently small to slot in the fridge.Credit…Ladybird Farm
“Summer is bare feet in the grass, spitting watermelon seeds left and right, and volunteer plants coming up,” stated Ms. Carter, who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., earlier than returning to japanese North Carolina, the place she grew up, in 2018.
“There would be yards with patches of big watermelon leaves and vines spread out,” she recalled. “I remember seeing car tires and vines flowing over containers.”
Ms. Carter, 31, is the co-founder of Tall Grass Food Box, an organization devoted to growing the visibility of Black farmers utilizing community-supported agriculture-style produce packing containers. In 1955, her maternal great-grandfather acquired just a little greater than three acres of land in Apex; he ran a juke joint earlier than constructing his residence, a construction that weaves collectively her folks’s story of tenant farming, entrepreneurship and homeownership.
A filmmaker by commerce, she is the fourth era to make a life — and to have a tendency herbs, okra, squash, peas, peppers and melons — on household land. Her showstopping, lustrous heirloom watermelons unfold pleasure all through a whole group.
Her uncle, Andrew Lee, 77, is her “dirt and till” guiding mild; they each make an look in Netflix’s “High on the Hog,” a four-part collection targeted on the historical past of African American foodways and celebration, which was launched final month. With her uncle’s confidence and approval, her first watermelon yield in 2018 afforded Ms. Carter sufficient fruit for bartering, gifting and experimenting in panzanella salads.
Sugar child watermelon seedlings at Ms. Carter’s residence in Apex, N.C.Credit…Eamon Queeney for The New York Times
“My grandmother grew watermelons on the hill on the corner of this house,” she stated. This season, Ms. Carter planted jubilee and Georgia rattlesnake varieties on the identical incline, close to the rose bushes, which she plans to reap in July. Until then, she’ll purchase seeded watermelons from a South Carolina melon man.
Sydney Buffington and her husband, Derek Pope, promote produce from their Ladybird Farm to eating places in close by Athens, Ga.Credit…Rinne Allen for The New York Times
Some 330 miles south on Interstate 85, you’ll find one other coveted heirloom melon — moon and stars, a speckled selection with pink or yellow flesh that may weigh as much as 30 kilos at maturity. “We stick with smaller, more personal watermelons,” stated Sydney Buffington, who runs Ladybird Farm along with her husband, Derek Pope, in Hull, Ga. On two acres, the couple cultivates natural strawberries, tomatoes, edible flowers and melons for eating places in close by Athens, Ga., the native farmers’ market and a community-supported agriculture program. Sandwiched between their residing quarters and a modest wooden-framed rental property are tidy rows devoted to the summer season must-have.
Their prospects usually ask if the watermelons comprise seeds and tips on how to decide one’s ripeness. The natural seedless watermelon seeds are costly, Ms. Buffington stated. The look of a light-weight blonde solar mark (or pinpricks on the sunspot of a moon and stars melon) and the browning of the curly tendrils on the melon’s stem are cues to start the harvesting course of.
Watermelon vines starting to flower at Ladybird Farm.Credit…Rinne Allen for The New York Times
“You leave melons where they lie; don’t pick them up, don’t rotate them,” Mr. Pope stated. “The same spot that is on the ground always has to be on the ground.”
He is a melon whisperer, no thumping, with a cranium-to-sphere connection to the fruit. When requested how the farmers eat the primary watermelon of the season, Ms. Buffington and Mr. Pope stated, virtually in unison, “right in the field.” Using a pocketknife, they break up open and carve out the flesh. Everyone has a ritual when confronted with the endorphin-rushing visuals of a superbly ripe fruit, the scent of pure sugars wafting about.
Ladybird Farms sells heirloom varieties like moon and stars, tom and sugar child.Credit…Ladybird Farm
“My grandfather loves salt on his melons,” stated Ms. Carter, of Tall Grass Food Box. “I like cold or room temperature watermelon with no salt.”
She recalled the grins her fruit has generated on her journey towards self-taught grasp gardener, a second that related nostalgia to the current.
“Three years ago, I did a pop-up at the Hayti Heritage Center’s Juneteenth event and sold $1 slices of cold watermelon,” she stated. “It was a symbol of a newfound reclamation I was just starting to dig into.”
Recipe: Country Panzanella With Watermelon Dressing
Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get common updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe strategies, cooking suggestions and procuring recommendation.