Watching the meltdown of the east cost under the heave of a 100
degree, nothing will break this impeccable heat other than doing
what Egyptians have been doing for thousands of years; eating a
fresh tasty cold watermelon. According to Watermelon.org, Egyptians were the first to discover watermelons 5000 years ago and then shared them with the rest of civilization in the 10th century.
This is not the first time Egyptians gave the world a first; Risking sounding like a tea party bobber, Egyptians have been pioneers on almost every front – first measurement, first irrigation system, first astronomy, taxation, uniform armies, and of course the most famous first, the mammoth gated single unit real-estate complex for exclusive dead royal residences, and now first live pharaoh mummy in office for 30 years!
In spite of all that, giving the world the most intriguing summer fruit is especially sweet.
When it comes to eating watermelons, there are many cultural innovations on how watermelons are consumed.
The Japanese will elegantly decorate them and give them as gifts. In other part of Asia, people will pickle watermelons – a culinary behavior that is very hard for Egyptians to swallow. Egyptians may pickle their Pharos, but watermelons rank too high in their food chain. Watermelon is considered by Egyptians a live food which should be cut and eaten fresh. It’s getting near that time of year again. Some speculate that the color of the Egyptian national flag was inspired by the colorful watermelons with its white, red and black look. For thousands of years, watermelons have been the fruit of choice for most Egyptians to help them tolerate the brutal summer heat. Egyptians eat watermelons usually after meals as dessert, or they may combine watermelons with feta cheese for the contrasting flavor.
The watermelon seeds are often dried, baked, and flavored for light snacking.
Watermelons provide Egyptian families with an opportunity for gathering and pastime entertainment. You rarely see someone eating watermelon alone; as Egyptians say, you eat alone you die alone. As a youngster growing up in Egypt in a family of 10, I relished going out on the balcony on summer hot days with my brothers all shirtless and enjoying eating watermelons, holding a big slice with two hands, sticking our teeth into its rich crumbling body, and letting the red juice drip all over our faces and naked chests. This provided us with a much needed cold sweet shower, and the fun didn’t end there. We then collected the black seeds in our mouths and started our spitting contest, deliberately and meticulously spitting them in the air to see who could land the furthest or perhaps hit the right targets. I got so good at this game, I could hit a fly standing on the wall across the street with a perfectly projected watermelon seed, a skill that I don’t usually brag about or put on my résumé. The best place to have such sinful fun is at the beach in the summer. Since you are already half naked, you don’t have to worry about the dripping mess; besides, you have all the sand and water you need to bury the green watermelon rinds and cover the evidence.
Eating at the beach is kind of prohibited in Egypt, but Egyptians have an uncanny way of showing civil disobedience, by not following any government regulations or working only 7 minutes a day. Selling watermelon in Egypt is rich with tradition.
The street peddlers, their donkey carts loaded with big stacks of watermelons, will go around chanting their admiring jingles describing the beauty of their watermelons. ‘Hamar we Halawah’ reddish and sweetness, or Ya Gammr, ya Gamer; Oh Embers, like embers, and the confident watermelon peddler will chant Ala Elskinah Ya Helwah, challenging anyone to cut his watermelons and taste them on the spot before buying them, which it is the ultimate technique of picking up a good watermelon.
From the tone of their voices you could tell which peddlers you could trust to have good watermelons. There is something intriguing about going through the experience of hunting a good watermelon; it is a form of art and mythology. Egyptians have very exaggerated appreciation of their ability to choose a good watermelon, and they will generously share them with anyone who will listen. Strangers in the street will stop and volunteer their watermelon selection techniques to you, which is a social behavior that is not welcome in other produce picking schemes like tomatoes or oranges.
In picking a good watermelon, Egyptians treat watermelon like pets; they will pat them, talk to them, others poke them and feel them, look for a big yellow spots on the bottom, or some will go to the extreme and carry them on their foreheads and listen to them.
Until today I have no idea why and what kind of information these people are getting from doing that. I actually saw a Middle Eastern looking man doing just that in the Minneapolis farmers market, but that was before the 9/11 era.
Arab Americans nowadays will avoid any display of overly ethnic behavior in public.
For me to pick up a good watermelon really is like picking a blind date; it is hit and miss at best, and you can do all the testing techniques you want and still get a bad one.
In fact, Americans consumed 368 billion pounds of watermelons last year, most of them are bad watermelons and most of the bad watermelons were consumed in Minnesota (source: Me). It is very hard to grow a good watermelon. I never understood why.
Watermelons are 95% water, so once the watermelon growers let the water run freely in the field 95% of their work is done; all they need to do is to work a little harder on the other 5%.
To get a good tasty watermelon I was told you need a climate that is very hot and dry, the soil has to be sandy clay, the irrigation has to be precise and timely and the pollination has to be completed when the melons’ flowers are blooming and apparently in a good mood. My first watermelon picking experience here in the States was for a 4th of July picnic. I went to the supermarket to pick up the most consumed fruit in the celebrating of our national Independence Day holiday. I confidently chose a watermelon that seemed to have all the signs of goodness. In the age of genetic engineering and standardization, most of our food is available all seasons regardless of the climate or where you live. As a result, most Americans lost their hunting and gathering skills, so they rely on either machines or illegal immigrants to do it for them.
At supermarkets they will stop and approach you and engage in watermelon conversation, and then ask you to help them in picking up a good watermelon.
Americans seem to think foreigners are experts on weird things, especially those things that don’t require tools or equipment, like pushing a stalled car on the freeway, climbing a tree to save a stranded cat, opening a bottle of beer with your teeth, putting a roof over their heads, or coaching their kids’ soccer team – for many Americans it is still not an American sport, it is not entertaining enough, too many disappointments and you rarely score. The ritual of cutting a watermelon in my family was sacred.
Everyone in the family has to be present and seated to witness the ceremony, when the oldest male member of the family will stand up and hold the knife in the air, gently stabbing the melon in the heart and slowly working his way around to complete the kill.
Suddenly the two halves of the watermelon will crack open for everyone to see the insides.
Imagine the anticipation and the awe, the family reaction to seeing the perfect watermelon with its dark reddish inside.
At my 4th of July picnic we didn’t have to do go to that extreme, which is what is so great about America: they don’t take eating very seriously and they don’t spend lots of time celebrate eating, but they eat all the time anyway. Neither the color nor the taste of my watermelon was my biggest concern, however. Under the gazing eyes of the spectators, much to my surprise I found that the watermelon had no black seeds inside the red flesh. Seedless watermelons? That is scandalous! In Egypt I had been cheated with watermelons numerous times at an Egyptian fruit stand, there is no such thing as expiration date. This is a concept that is very hard to grasp for most Egyptians.
Since they believe that only God should know the expiration date for anything, they don’t throw expired fruit away and they will sell you anything that at first may look great but once they put them in brown bags, it is like magic, it is switched with the rotten ones. In Egypt you should always be careful of anything that is sold in a brown bag, as the culture of cheating there is prevalent. Whatever bad things that I found in my brown fruit bag – rotten Guava, moldy tomatoes or tasteless watermelons – I never felt as cheated as buying a seedless watermelon here in the States. The discovery of that empty red fruit made me feel betrayed and violated. What is next? A skinless chicken?
What is becoming of America? First they try to spread seedless democracy into the Middle East, and now they are trying to promote seedless watermelons.
Americans, take from me; why can’t you just leave well enough alone?
People in the Middle East don’t want your seedless democracy and definitely not your seedless watermelon.
At least if you don’t like the taste of Egyptian watermelons, you can always snack on the seed, but when you don’t like American democracy, all that is left to relish is the ballet box.
Producer and Host of the Arab American TV show BelAhdan on MN Public TV
Visit the Belahdan website.