West: Craving sweet watermelon

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I know its rushing the season but the sudden hot weather has got me craving HOME-GROWN watermelon.

(Notice how HOME-GROWN is emphasized.)

Yep, there's nothing like the temperature climbing from the 70s up the 90s to make you crave an old fashioned watermelon cutting.

Watermelon cuttings (yep, that's the correct term) were once a major social event around these parts ... not unlike an ice cream social.

Certain individuals were known for their skill in growing melons, like the late Mr. Tom Drake in Rutherford County, for example. Watermelon cuttings could also be family events shared "in the cool" of the afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays.

While it is perfect easy to buzz by your favorite megamarket and buy a watermelons ranging in size from a softball to a big old belly-buster. I would love to find one of those melons you don't see any more. They were round, dark green in color and perfect for cooling in a cellar or well house.

Home-grown watermelon.

You can't beat it on a hot summer day.

The snake-striped varieties might be more seedless or easier to store in the refrigerator, but they just don't have than dense, sweet flesh of those old-fashioned melons, sliced up and served up on a sheet of newspaper in the backyard.

It was Saturday afternoon heaven for kids who ate as many seeds as they spit at their ornery siblings.

Men would ate their slices with a knife or just standing up, flicking away the seeds.

Others loved their melon with a touch of salt.

Nowadays, you can encounter melon as part of salads and other dishes. While they might be tasty they just don]t rival the taste of a big, ruby-red slice of heaven sliced with a butcher knife in a Tennessee country backyard. Maybe the iron in that old, thin knife made the difference? More that likely, the delicious taste was due to the loving care that went into growing that melon.

Of course, big, round watermelons aren't too easy to ship and you didn't want to pick those big boys until they were ripe and ready to eat. Soooooo.... they went away from the supermarkets a long time ago. Today, there is hope for a come-back thanks to an interest in reviving traditional plants.

And how are they doing that?

Well it beats me, but independent seed companies like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are offering varieties like Stone Mountain Watermelon described as "a commercial bestseller from the '30s and '40s - thanks to grower Rodger Winn for bringing back this old Southern favorite."

This watermelon is described as lightly oval 30 lb fruits with a dark green rind and sweet, juicy red flesh.

That sounds right.

Then there's the famous Bradford melon, called "the most luscious watermelon the Deep South has ever produced was once so coveted, 19th-century growers used poison or electrocuting wires to thwart potential thieves, or simply stood guard with guns in the thick of night."

A great-great-great-grandson of the Bradford's creator is striving to bring it back. This melon is so famous and so sweet it has been profiled by newspapers and even NPR (National Public Radio).

The Bradford has quite a story behind it and dates back to the Revolutionary War.

"It was 1783, and the British had captured an American soldier named John Franklin Lawson and shipped him off to the West Indies to be imprisoned. Aboard the prison ship, the Scottish captain gave Lawson a wedge of watermelon that was so succulent, he saved every seed. When he got home to Georgia, Lawson planted the seeds and grew a popular watermelon. Around 1840, Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford of Sumter County, S.C., crossed the Lawson with the Mountain Sweet."

But (this will sound familiar) the melon didn't ship well and by 1920 had virtually disappeared except for a patch maintained by the Bradford family.

Now this luscious melon is getting back into distribution.

So there is hope for us melon lovers!

Keep the faith!!

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Mike West column
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