In a typical year, Arkansas farmers grow about 40 million pounds of watermelons. While many of these melons are shipped to other states, there’s no question that we love our watermelons.
Not only are they tasty, watermelons are an amazingly healthy food. In addition to providing Vitamins A, B6, and C, they’re a good source for potassium. Watermelons also supply lycopene, a powerful antioxidant which may help prevent cancers.
Originally from the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, melons have been around long enough to show up in the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. They arrived in China during the 10th century and in Europe 300 years later. A combination of colonists and the slave trade introduced watermelons to North America in the 1600s.
Arkansas entered the watermelon scene in a big way in the mid-1920s when the town of Hope held its annual competition for largest vegetables and watermelons and a monstrous 136-pound melon won top prize in August 1925. The initial watermelon festival debuted the next year and by 1928 the crowds had grown to 30,000 visitors, many of whom arrived in town via special trains for the festivities. Gatherings that large drew a full slate of politicians including the Democratic vice presidential candidate (Arkansas Senator Joe T. Robinson) in 1928.
Gatherings that large also put an unmanageable burden on Hope’s civic leaders who struggled to handle the onslaught. The Great Depression then swept over the country, compounding an already difficult situation. The final straw was the terrible drought of 1931, wiping out the watermelon crop and putting an end to the festival.
Through the efforts of “Pod” Rogers Jr., the local chamber of commerce revived the Hope Watermelon Festival in 1976 – and it’s been going strong ever since. The 2005 champion melon – weighing in at 268.8 pounds and grown by Lloyd Bright of Hope – has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s heaviest watermelon.
The editors of Arkansas: A Guide to the State (1941) kindly advised their readers how to grow the gargantuan fruit:
Raising a giant watermelon requires as much art as growing a rare orchid. The farmer selects an exceptionally sturdy vine and clears the field around it. When the melons first appear, he chooses the most promising and culls all the others. At this point solicitude begins in earnest. Castor beans or other plants are set around the pampered melon for shade; the soil is enriched with nitrogen-charged water from the manure trough or with commercial fertilizers; the melon is force-fed from shallow pans of water through lengths of wool driven into the stem.
I have many fond memories of eating watermelon on a boat dock at Lake Norfork during my childhood days. We’d toss the melon in the lake (they float) a couple of hours before the feast to let it cool. We’d usually have red-meated melons although my dad would occasionally surprise us with a yellow-meated melon from Cave City. With juice dribbling down my chin, I’d spit the seeds into the water and then jump into the lake, cleansing the sticky mess from my hands and face. While a chunk of fresh watermelon is hard to beat, I’m looking at new options these days – and have collected recipes for such dishes as watermelon popsicles, watermelon sorbet, and even watermelon daiquiris!
One of my favorite writers/philosophers is Henry David Thoreau, a vicarious traveler who never got anywhere near Arkansas in his short life. But the man knew something about watermelons. “There are various ways in which you can tell if a watermelon is ripe,” he wrote. “The old or ripe ones sing base; the young, tenor or falsetto.” Keep that advice in mind next time you’re trying to make a watermelon-related decision at the farmers’ market. Thump the melon with a finger and listen for the right note.