Friday marks National Watermelon Day, and in observance of this hallowed commemoration, I can’t help but reflect on how watermelon once made me feel like an outcast.
I was 5 years old, and living in the St. Louis suburbs. I was playing in a neighbor kid’s backyard, back when children ran barefoot in the woods and had muddy faces. My playmate’s mom came outside with a plate full of watermelon slices. I asked for some salt.
“Salt?!” a chorus of kindergartners asked accusingly, their sweaty little heads all whipping in unison to stare at me incredulously. At that tender age, I suddenly knew what it felt like to be The Other.
Salt sprinkled on watermelon. It’s a habit I learned from my dad, who in retrospect had some odd food preferences, like eating popcorn and milk (together, in a bowl, like cereal) and insisting my mother make fried chicken without the skin on (it sucked). Of his quirky food likings, salted watermelon is the one that’s stayed with me.
So why put salt on a perfectly good slice of watermelon? Well, because it tastes good. A little salt sprinkled on a crispy-cold slice of melon brings out its sweetness, and just makes it taste better. But like the great debates between Republican vs. Democrat, tinsel vs. garland and crunchy vs. smooth, there appears to be no middle ground. For those of us who are already in on this trick, salted watermelon goes together like peanut butter and jelly. For those who’ve never tried it, salt on watermelon is akin to ketchup on cake. They’d never dream of it.
According to food developer Barb Stuckey, author of Taste What You’re Missing, The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good, adding salt to a sweet watermelon may seem counterintuitive, but there’s some food science behind it.
“Watermelon has three taste elements,” she explains, “sweet, sour and bitter; it’s all in the flesh of the melon.” The bitterness, Stuckey says, holds the sweetness in check, and actually suppresses it to an extent. Salt has the effect of knocking down the bitterness and upping the sweetness, or as she put it, “releasing [the sweetness] from the suppression of the bitterness.”
Knowing that, it seems almost a moral imperative to salt melon and release the sweetness that’s yearning to breathe free.
While we probably can’t justify supplementing our over-salted diets with added sodium, a little fine-grained salt sprinkled on melon is probably not going to make the difference between low blood pressure and keeling over from a stroke. And Stuckey adds that, especially in the summertime, there are some physiological motives for seeking out salt.
“We crave things salty when we’re hot because we lose sodium through sweat,” she says, “and we don’t have a way to store sodium. So Mother Nature builds in our craving for salt, which forces us to keep our body’s sodium electrolytes in balance.”
Still, those of us who salt our watermelon are not more highly evolved beings, even if it’s nice to think we are. Instead, salty on sweet is simply a taste that some of us are conditioned to find pleasurable ― perhaps like me, from an early age. My husband, who grew up in Italy, where dolce-salata (salty-sweet) is not the norm, can’t stand peanut butter, salted-caramel anything, and certainly not salted watermelon.
But the key to getting anyone to like a salted watermelon is finding a good melon, to start with.
My family left Missouri when I was still in grade school, and I’ve never since tasted a watermelon as good as those big summer ones we’d buy there, usually at a roadside stand. My dad always thumped melons to pick out a good one. “They should sound like there’s something going on inside,” he once told me.
I’ve been knocking my knuckles on melons ever since, and I get the occasional knowing look from some old-timer in the grocery store. My produce vendor here in Italy, Roberto, essentially says to do the same: “When you knock on it, it should sound like a drum.” The melon should have a hollow sound, not a dull thud. Because no amount of salt will save a dud melon.
As far as other tips for picking a good melon, Roberto says size matters. “It’s no good unless it’s at least 10 kilograms.” (That’s 22 pounds! You’d better invite the neighbor kids!) He says those little mini-melons are convenient ― and he sells them ― but they’re just not as good as a big melon. He also says that the stem should be dry, meaning the melon was picked at least a few days earlier and has ripened a little off the vine.
As far as salt on watermelon goes, Roberto the Produce Guy abides. “It’s good with a little squeeze of lemon, too,” he says.