Mark Twain, the ever-clever and everquotable, may have considered pompano a fish “as delicious as the lesser forms of sin.”
But his gaze shifted upward to describe the watermelon, which he claimed must be “what angels eat.”
Summer is prime time for watermelon, every bit as much as it is for peaches and nectarines. Not that they are relatives, though watermelon has been given so many erroneous names in so many languages (even Latin), that we figure anything is possible. Mix these Word Wars with the dramatic changes when watermelon went from wild to domestic, and we have a recipe for centuries of confusion.
The ancient Egyptians weren’t too confused, though. They grew and ate watermelon. In fact, quite a few pharaohs asked to be buried with watermelon seeds and paintings of watermelons on the walls of their tombs. Archaeologists, of course, find this very exciting — especially the painting on one tomb that shows not the round watermelons that grew wild but today’s oblongshaped fruit that came along when humans started planting and growing the things.
As best we can tell, watermelon has made a 5,000-year journey to that picnic table in your backyard. Since the evidence in Egypt is conclusive, for a long time scientists believed the melon was developed or discovered in some different form farther south in Africa and eventually migrated to the most developed civilization of its day. Increasingly, these same scientists are wondering if watermelon didn’t shine in ancient Egypt because it began there.
None of these theories start with anything we picture as watermelon. The fruits were not only round as a basketball but hardly red — pink was probably the closest color to what we know and love. And seedless? You can forget that, since it would take millennia to develop that through botanical genetics, which had to be invented first.
So, one way or the other, watermelon was in Egypt during the golden age of the pharaohs. Thanks to Egypt’s trade with the rest of the Mediterranean, and that whole chapter with Caesar and Antony from Rome falling in love with Cleopatra, people knew about foods the Egyptians were uniquely able to grow thanks to annual flooding of the Nile. Somewhere along this timeline, the Hebrews living in Israel at the Mediterranean’s eastern end got hold of some watermelon, and it’s been grown there ever since.
Another aspect of The Great Watermelon Makeover concerns access to the fruit inside — and whether there’s any reason to want access. All possible progenitors of modern watermelon had much thicker, harder skin. Some, in fact, were almost inaccessible. That was bred out over the centuries, as was the simple fact that watermelon was bitter. Paintings from 2,000 years ago show watermelons sliced to be eaten as is, giving us proof that these good things had happened by then. Or as one historian quipped, watermelon had gone “from desert to dessert.”
Even more fascinatingly, the gene that moved from yellow flesh to red also increased the sugar content. It’s all so perfect that we can’t be sure which of the two changes was sought, with the other a kind of added bonus.
Finally, why? Most researchers believe the answer is in the name, a fact that continues through most other languages. What was more valuable than fruit along the dry Mediterranean coast, not to mention across the deserts often found inland? Or out on a voyage across the salty sea? Water.
The thinking is that watermelons functioned as nature’s canteens, delivering water to thirsty people devouring their sweet by-then red interior. Some cultures were more literal: wringing the water from watermelons so they could drink it.
The fruit even supplied water for that long journey to the afterlife. The pharaohs knew better than to leave home without it.