Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is a member of the gourd family. Though technically a vegetable, it is frequently considered a fruit, and it is thought to have originated in the Kalahari Desert, where explorer and missionary David Livingston came across a wild watermelon vine in the 1850s. Archaeologists have found evidence of watermelons from ancient Egypt. Though watermelon had traveled to most reaches of the globe by the seventeenth century, the enslaved Africans brought to the New World are credited with introducing the sweet gourd to the United States.
Possessing both male and female flowers, the watermelon plant requires bees for pollination. The vines thrive in warm soil and typically will not survive a frost. Though watermelon crops abate during times of drought, a severe dearth in rainfall will produce an even sweeter fruit. Watermelons flourish in semiarid or humid environments and require a lengthy growing season, making Mississippi’s balmy summers and short, mild winters an ideal climate for cultivation. The peak season in Mississippi is June through September, and the state’s 2015 watermelon crop was valued at $3.78 million.
All of a watermelon is edible, though the rind is frequently discarded. The melon is most commonly eaten raw but can find its way into a multitude of southern dishes. Some classic favorites include pies, sherbets, salsas, and pickles (rinds). Watermelon seeds were substituted for coffee during the Civil War era. Some southerners spike their watermelons with rum or other liquors. More recent culinary innovations include watermelon stir-fry with chicken and red capers and deep-fried watermelon.
Recent medical research may spark a new demand for pickled watermelon rinds. Apart from containing significant amounts of vitamins A, B6, and C, watermelon rinds also possess beneficial quantities of lycopene, an antioxidant that may aid in the fight against prostate cancer.
Watermelon is most closely associated with the rural South and particularly with African Americans, having found its way into much African American folklore. According to tradition, the year’s watermelon crop should always be planted on 1 May by pushing the seed into the soil with one’s fingers. In addition, sowing seeds at the head of a grave allows the dead to drink of the gourd’s sweet juice. Many folktales involve slaves stealing watermelon.
Watermelon remains culturally pervasive in Mississippi. A guitar fashioned out of a watermelon appears on the cover of B. B. King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds album. Every summer Mize and Water Valley host annual watermelon festivals, with a variety of entertainment including contests for seed spitting, watermelon eating, and largest watermelon. On the Fourth of July the annual Watermelon Classic 5K road race takes place in Jackson.
- “2015 State Agriculture Overview: Mississippi,” US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service website, www.nass.usda.gov
- John Edgerton, Southern Food (1993); Ellen Ficken, Watermelon (1984)
- Felder Rushing and Water Reeves, The Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Book (2002)
- Joe Gray Taylor, Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South (1982)
- Charles Reagan Wilson, in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (1989)
- Watermelon.org website, www.watermelon.org