Mini Object Lesson: Watermelon, Fruit of the Flesh

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
(Steven Depolo / Flickr)

I forgot how to eat watermelon. I didn’t realize it until this week, when we cut into the small, round melon in the farm box for dinner. Seeds. Seeds everywhere, just like there used to be before the Great Unseedening. In 2003, apparently, 42% of watermelons still had seeds. By 2010, 16%.

Today, the Watermelon Board doesn’t even bother publishing updated numbers. The “majority” of watermelons are seedless, just like the majority of telephones are computers.

Like most crops that were once seasonal and regional, watermelon are grown year-round in warm climates and ferried to you by ship, train, and truck—from Brazil in November, the Dominican Republic in January, Panama in April. Smaller, rounder varieties are easier to carry and store. Once ubiquitous and seedless, watermelon becomes just another fruit to dice and spear and chew—honeydew without the toothiness or the sweetness, just enough meat to cohere the remaining 92% water that constitutes it.

Back when watermelon was a seasonal, seeded fruit, it was really something else entirely. For two months or so of summer, green-fleshed colossi held court on picnic tables, presiding over hot dog empires. Somebody’s dad knew how to cut along the seed lines to avoid most of them, but even still, pliant little beetles remained for ejection to the soil. The ensuing stickiness, whether you were 8 or 18 or 80. Watermelon wasn’t a fruit so much as a standard of summer.

We domesticate things to tame them, but the tamed can never be wild again. On the Watermelon Growers Association website, there’s a photo of a woman smiling before a segment of melon, seeds nowhere to be found. It seems antiseptic, Photoshopped, like brassiere models airbrushed in catalogs for the sake of decency. Children might eat this!

My degenerate, heavily-seeded melon for dinner is a disaster. Bits of flesh and seed all over my plate. The kids don’t even touch it. I must look like a lecher, some Steward of Gondor dripping the end of summer as if I’ve murdered it. Watermelon was always so corporeal, so messy—a fruit of the flesh, knife, and mouth. Now, still mouthed, but almost drinkable. Pristine.

(For longer Object Lessons, head here)