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Watermelon Watch: How to Pick a Winner

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Because there’s nothing quite like an icy cold watermelon to slake a summertime thirst, it’s particularly disappointing to cut into one that’s pithy or not quite sweet enough. Let’s face it—when you’ve worked up a sweat and crave that juicy sweetness, nothing else will do. With a water content of more than 90 percent, watermelon is up to the task of providing much-needed hydration even in the face of sweltering Southern temperatures.

Watermelon, a good source of vitamins C, A, B1 and B6, is considered by many folks to be a fruit. In actuality, it is a vegetable related to cucumbers and squash—all members of the gourd family. It is the most popular melon in the U.S., handily beating out other favorites like cantaloupe and honeydew.

The faraway fields of Africa are thought to be the origins of the watermelon, where food historians believe the melon was first cultivated nearly 5,000 years ago. It likely arrived in South Carolina by way of the African slave trade and European settlers.

Though there are hundreds of varieties grown across the country, here in South Carolina we are accustomed to growing and eating just a few, like Crimson Sweet and Royal Sweet. Watermelon season in the state begins with planting in March and April, with harvests that last all summer and end in August. Nearly 10,000 acres of South Carolina farmland are devoted to commercial growing of watermelons. Our prolific production and overall love for watermelon are celebrated annually with festivals in PagelandHampton County and Winterville

But cutting into an unripe or overripe watermelon is no grounds for celebration. While the selection process might seem hit or miss, there are ways to determine ripeness. According to Clemson Extension, here are a few things to look for:

Check the “piggy tail”—the tendrils that grow from the stem. If they are green, the watermelon is not ripe. If they are brown, the melon is ripe. The tendrils and stem should not be dried out, though—a sign the watermelon is old and probably pithy.

The watermelon’s skin should be dull rather than glossy.

When you run a hand over the skin, you should feel slightly ribbed indentations.

The “belly” of the melon should be cream colored with a slight yellowish hue. If it’s mostly white, the watermelon is unripe. If it’s mostly yellow, the watermelon is overripe.

A watermelon should feel heavy for its size.

When thumped on the underside, the melon should have a deep, hollow sound.

So, what do you do when life hands you a pithy watermelon? The same thing you do when life hands you lemons! That’s right—go make some lemonade. That melon might have lost its crispness, but there’s still plenty of juicy flavor to enjoy. Here’s a recipe from the South Carolina Watermelon Association that can transform a less-than-stellar watermelon experience into a cold, fruity drink to quench a summertime thirst and satisfy your watermelon craving.

Watermelon Raspberry Lemonade
Ingredients
6 cups watermelon cubes
¼ cup raspberries
1 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup lemon juice

Preparation
Place watermelon, raspberries and water in the container of an electric blender. Cover and blend until smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a pitcher. Stir in sugar and lemon juice until sugar dissolves. Refrigerate until chilled, about one hour.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.