The Diverse History of Watermelon, the Quintessential Fruit of the Summer Season

Photo: Watermelon, Feta, Mint Salad

In the U.S., watermelon seems to be the quintessential fruit of the season. It wasn’t until I spent a summer in San Francisco about six years ago and learned a variety of preparations of watermelon that I was able to view the fruit as more than the peasant food of the melon family.

Growing up, I preferred cantaloupe to watermelon, thinking the latter had not that much flavor and a chalky mouthfeel. But it seemed to be everywhere during summertime. Deep sighs of dissatisfaction would escape me at camp when the presented snack was sliced watermelon.

Historically, within the African-American community, watermelon possesses negative connotations of its own. While I wasn’t crazy about the taste of it to begin with, once I became of age to read about Jim Crow laws and to see depictions of blacks eating watermelon during that time, I seemed to make a point to not eat watermelon.

According to an article in The Atlantic, watermelon possessed connotations of uncleanliness and laziness. Eating it is messy, and while growing watermelons is easy, it’s hard to eat the fruit and continue working. These were some of the tropes around blacks and watermelons.

It wasn’t that I never ate watermelon, but I certainly spent most of my teens and 20s avoiding consuming the fruit in front of white people. I didn’t want to be viewed as the same as those pictures or stereotypes. And then I learned, that like so many other foods enjoyed in the U.S., watermelon has its origins in Africa.

It is disputed as to whether it was first cultivated in southern Africa or in Egypt, but it’s agreed that Africans were the first to cultivate it; and it arrived to the U.S., like so many other foods, via the Atlantic slave trade.

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SOURCE: Duluth News Tribune
Nyanyika Banda