watermelon-mainGrasp a slice with both hands, lean forward slightly, open your mouth wide, and bite on in. Swoon just a little as your teeth sink into the watermelon’s crisp fruit and its juices flow sweetly over your tongue and slide down your throat. One bite, and it’s clear there’s no denying that watermelon is tasty stuff, the quintessential flavor of August in Arkansas. Even more, as an edible antidote to late-summer’s sultry swelter, watermelon’s juicy sweetness not only tastes good but is good for you.

Watermelon—round or oblong, red or yellow, seeded or seedless—nourishes as it refreshes, each fragrant slice positively dripping with vitamins and nutrients that support healthy hearts and soothe sore muscles. Being 92 percent water, watermelon also quenches thirst while adding a bit of fiber to our diets, says Tina Crook, a nutrition professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. She calls watermelon “nature’s convenience food” because it’s full of vitamins plus a punch of potassium and a wallop of the phytonutrient lycopene. (More on that in a moment.)

Knowing all that, aren’t we lucky that August is watermelon season in Arkansas? The season actually began in early July with the first melons plucked from the vines in farms north, south, east and west, says Vic Ford, director of the University of Arkansas’ Southwest Research and Extension Center in Hempstead County. Arkansas vines will keep producing until around Labor Day, supplying us with a bounty of Charleston Gray, Jubilee and Black Diamond melons, all three varieties swollen with red and dark-pink fruit loaded with lycopene.

Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from damage, is found in pink and red fruits and vegetables, Crook says. The darker the hue, the higher the concentration of lycopene, which may lower the risks for cancer, heart disease and hardening of the arteries. Melons aren’t equal when it comes to lycopene; the nutrient doesn’t exist in nonred varieties such as the Yellow Crimson because its fruit is yellow. But yellow melon is every bit as much of a sweet treat as the red, with each bite providing a burst of vitamins A, B6 and C and other nutrients.

Whether red or yellow, the best melon is a fully ripe melon. There’s no wiggle room when it comes to ripeness because once harvested, a melon doesn’t continue to ripen as do some fruits and vegetables. When choosing a watermelon to buy, conventional watermelon wisdom has long held that thumping is the best way to judge a melon’s readiness for the table. Listen closely as you thump; if you’re rewarded with a hollow sound, the melon is ripe. A resounding thunk means you could do better. But tonality is subjective, so a thump-test verdict is always subject to second opinion.

An easier, almost foolproof way to assess a melon’s maturity, Ford says, is to check the bottom—the area of the rind that lies on the ground—for a yellow spot. A yellow bottom tells you the melon is ripe, while white indicates it’s not so ripe. Another clue is the melon’s stem, he says. If it’s green, then the melon didn’t mature on on the vine. Your ideal melon will have both a withered stem and a yellow bottom.

Once chosen, take your melon home and let it chill; then slice it open to behold the wonder of nature within—not only the fruit, but the rind and seeds. The rind contains all the nutrients found in the melon’s heart, while the seeds contain traces of zinc and potassium. And the juice—well, research by the University of Kentucky and Purdue University tells us that drinking watermelon juice slows a racing heart and relaxes blood vessels to enhance circulation. But all that’s just icing on the melon, isn’t it?

Now grasp that wedge and bite deeply. Go on, don’t be shy.

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