People are always asking me, “What do you miss most when you are on the road?”
The answer used to be the same — and universal, I think, among Southerners. Sweet iced tea. That was back in the day, when I travelled with my kids virtually everywhere I went. Now my kids are scattered here, there and yonder and so, naturally, they are what I miss most when I am on the road.
And my lovely wife, Lisa, has forbidden me to drink sweet tea unless it is a very special occasion, like a Tuesday night at Henderson’s, so I cannot truthfully say that I miss that the most.
On my recent excursion to the American West I realized, on the very last night of the trip — in Salt Lake City, of all places — that the one thing I missed the most on this trip was — ready for this?—WATERMELON.
That is right. Red, ripe watermelon. This particular trip was a carnivore’s dream. We had steak and buffalo and ribs almost every night and salads were few and far between, but on the last evening of the trip our guide and trip planner — that would be me — finally took us to a place that had a glorious salad bar and displayed prominently on the salad bar was a huge bowl and great big chunks of the delectable fruit that I have gotten in the habit of enjoying on a daily basis.
Yes, I said a daily basis. I am loving watermelon these days. You know, there was a time when I never got to eat watermelon until around the Fourth of July, when the prices dropped. My daddy wasn’t about to pay more than a quarter for one and having a watermelon cutting was a big deal.
I would go often go with Daddy to pick one out and we would thump, thump, thump every one available, listening for just the right hollow sound that would indicate the exact level of ripeness. There were always many varieties to choose from. Stone Mountain melons were big and round and a dark, dark green. There were oblong melons with dark green stripes and smaller melons that folks claimed didn’t have seeds. I wouldn’t know. We never bought those.
When we got our treasure home we would ice it down in a galvanized tub, with a block of ice that we would purchase at the ice house on the way home. Daddy always complained that the ice was so expensive and disdained every offer from the ice house man to provide crushed ice for a quarter more.
“I have a hammer and an ice pick at home,” he would always say. “I can crush my own ice.”
What he really meant was that I could crush his own ice, but it was fun. We would ice that melon down all afternoon and I would touch it every 15 or 20 minutes just to check the temperature.
When it was finally time to cut the melon, Mama would spread newspapers on the back yard picnic table and lay out a set of butter knives and a big box of table salt. Daddy did the honors and cut the melon. He went through the same litany every time. He would stick the point of a big butcher knife deep into one end of the melon, then he would give the knife a pull. Every time — every single time — he would peek inside the little crack and make the identical pronouncement — “Green!”
Every time I would pretend to fall for it and feign great disappointment, which seemed to please my father. Then he would pull the knife all the way back and the melon would pop open — in all its red, ripe glory.
He would cut it into quarters and then into eights, usually. If there was a large crowd he would cut it into as many pieces as necessary and we would go to chomping, slurping and spitting seeds. When the treat had been devoured Mama would wrap up the rinds in newspapers to be taken to the hog pens later on — unless she was preserving them to make pickles.
Watermelon cuttings don’t thrill people so much these days. We buy little tubs of melons at Publix year-round and whenever I feel the urge for a piece, which is several times a day, I reach into the refrigerator and have a few pieces. I now eat watermelon on Christmas Day if I so choose.
There is still a local season, of course, and when the trucks start rolling up I-75 from Cordele with the Georgia-grown melons, that’s the cue for me to go and visit Ben Evans and let the thumping begin. We don’t spread out newspapers and make a big production, though. We just split the melon open, cut it into chunks and store it in those airtight bowls you buy at people’s aggravating home parties and stick the bowl in the fridge. Instant gratification when a craving sets in.
So there you have it. True confession. Watermelon is what I miss most. But I still know where to find the only sweet tea that I am allowed to drink these days.