By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 11:35 AM
In 1995, Jason Schayot set the world record for spitting a watermelon seed when he shot his tiny black bullet a whopping 75 feet, 2 inches, almost a quarter of a football field. It’s a record that would be hard to beat. But Schayot might not have much competition anyway. Within a generation, most Americans won’t even know that watermelons have seeds, let alone how to spit them.
According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, only 16 percent of watermelons sold in grocery stores have seeds, down from 42 percent in 2003. In California and the mid-South, home to the country’s biggest watermelon farms, the latest figures are 8 and 13 percent, respectively. The numbers seem destined to tumble. Recently developed hybrids do not need seeded melons for pollination – more on that later – which liberates farmers from growing melons with spit-worthy seeds.
The iconic, black-studded watermelon wedge appears destined to become a slice of vanished Americana. If that sounds alarmist, try to remember the last time you had to spit out a grape seed.
The sea change is all in the service of convenience. “People don’t eat watermelon out of hand like they used to. They like to eat it in fruit salads,” said Robert Schueller, the public relations director for Melissa’s Produce, a California distributor that sells only 10 percent of its watermelons with seeds. “It’s a question of ease, time, and there’s the safety factor. Kids could choke on the seeds.”
You can’t blame producers for giving people what they want, though as far as I can tell, childhood mortality rates remain unaffected by the type of watermelons for sale. Nor should we let nostalgia be an obstacle to progress. Seedless watermelons are easier to eat, and it’s not only harried soccer moms who prefer them. Chefs such as Eric Ziebold at CityZen and Todd Gray of Equinox, both usually vocal proponents of heritage varietals, prefer seedless watermelons because they are more easily transformed into elegant cubes and fine dices.
Still, as the end of summer looms, I can’t help but mourn the inevitable disappearance of the black-dotted red watermelon. In part, it is a wistfulness for a classic American fruit and its traditions. Without seeds, there can be no seed-spitting contests such as the one in Luling, Tex., home to an iconic watermelon water tower, or the one in Pardeeville, Wis., where the rules are strictly enforced: No professional tobacco spitters. Denture wearers must abide by the judge’s decision if their teeth go farther than the seed.
Though there is some debate about it, the flavor of old-time watermelons might also be in jeopardy. And what a flavor to lose! In “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” Mark Twain described the true Southern watermelon as “a boon apart . . . when one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat.” Convenience, whether it’s a smaller size, a fruit without seeds or year-round availability, always seems to extract a price. And if that sounds alarmist, try to remember the last great tomato you bought at a supermarket.
The watermelon, or Citrullus lanatus, belongs to a family of climbing vines that include cucumbers and gourds. And like all fruits, they naturally have seeds. The seedless versions are not genetically modified, as some might assume, but are hybrids that have been grown in the United States since the middle of the 20th century. Breeders match the pollen from a diploid plant, one that contains 22 chromosomes per cell, and the flower of a tetraploid plant, which contains 44 chromosomes per cell. The result is a triploid with 33 chromosomes that is incapable of producing seeds. (The tiny white ones you sometimes find are seed coats, where a seed did not mature.) Breeders call it the mule of the watermelon world.
When farmers first began growing seedless watermelons, they still needed seeded varieties to pollinate them. But that has changed, says Mark Arney, president of the watermelon board, who, for the record, has never spit a watermelon seed farther than 20 feet. Over the past five or six years, the same period when the share of seeded watermelons began to drop precipitously at grocery stores, farmers began using so-called non-bearing pollinators. In other words, instead of planting a percentage of their fields with old-fashioned watermelons to pollinate, they plant another hybrid that produces the flowers that bees need but no actual fruit.
I see the trend at local grocery stores. I haven’t found any seeded melons at my local Safeway this summer or at the nearby Whole Foods Market, though a staff member there told me that they sometimes carry organic watermelons with seeds.
The most reliable place to find old-school watermelons is the farmers market. That is not because of any bias in favor of old-fashioned varieties. It’s because seedless watermelons are more difficult and expensive to grow. Their seeds are most successful when germinated in a greenhouse rather than outdoors, and farmers must buy hybrid seeds for the pollinator plants. More than half of the watermelons grown at Montross, Va.-based Garner Produce, a regular at Washington markets, are seeded. At Spring Valley Farm and Orchard in Morgan, W.Va., 60 percent of the melons have seeds. “It’s easier,” said Joe Heischman, a co-manager of the farm. “But I think the seeded ones also taste better. When we put out samples of both, people always say the seeded ones are sweeter.”
That Mark Twain’s angels would reject seedless watermelons is a fairly widely held belief among the minority of shoppers who have given the subject any thought. “I find seedless creepy, bland and oddly textured – sort of mealy,” said Colleen Levine, a 32-year-old government affairs consultant who writes the blog Foodietots.
“Maybe it’s all in the name of convenience. But I would never trade flavor just so I didn’t have to deal with seeds,” agreed Lisa Feng, a health-policy researcher at George Washington University. “Thank goodness for international markets that still carry these ‘burdensome’ fruits.”
I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of seeded, seedless, yellow and the newly popular “personal” watermelons from Melissa’s Produce and one seeded melon from a local farmers market.
The local melon was the runaway favorite. “Crisp and sweet with more than just a sugar-water taste,” said one tester. “Yum! Oh my god, yum,” was the judgment of another.
But the rest of the results didn’t prove much. The runner-up was a seedless personal melon, which was sweet and refreshing but lacked the concentrated flavor of the local melon. Next came the seedless red and yellow melons, which were inoffensive but whose primary asset was being cold on an August afternoon. Bringing up the rear was the California seeded melon, which was mealy and tasteless with more seeds than flesh, though in this case that wasn’t a bad thing.
“It all depends on how it was grown and if it was picked when it was ripe,” said Frank Stitt, chef at the Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala., and an evangelist for Southern food. “I have had some seedless watermelons that would rival traditional watermelon. However, it seems like the older varieties consistently have a little more intensity of flavor.” At the Highlands, Stitt uses seeded watermelons.
Stitt says he isn’t afraid that seeded varieties will disappear, at least in Alabama watermelon country. But he reckons that a greater public awareness of heirloom varieties could help reverse producers’ relentless focus on convenience.
Stitt remembers eating rattlesnake watermelon when he was growing up, oblong fruits with light- and dark-green stripes, and sugar babies, smaller, round ones that are still common in markets today. There are a host of other heirloom varieties with romantic names, such as the white-fleshed Cream of Saskatchewan; Mountain Hoosier, which can grow to 75 pounds; and Charleston Gray, an old Southern favorite that is being revived by seed savers.
The strategy has worked wonders for tomatoes. Tasteless, round red ones still predominate at grocery stores, but the fashion for lumpy, mottled and striped tomatoes has expanded the market and the plant breeders’ race to develop a supermarket variety that actually tastes good. Are watermelons ready for a renaissance? Champion seed spitters of the future should spread the word.