Baby Boomers

The Definitive Secret to Selecting the Best Watermelons

Do you know what the definition of a “truck” was before automobiles and vehicles were ever invented?

Thanks to our Grandpa Jack Dennis, I know a thing or two about that…and watermelons. (I’ll reveal the truck definition below).

Some of my favorite childhood memories are the summer time get togethers at Grandpa and Grandma’s Petaluma Street house on the southside of San Antonio back in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

All the Dennis family, including cousins (and sometimes the Grimmett’s from across the street), would spend the afternoon and evening into the night feasting on perfectly sweet and juicy slices carefully hand sliced by Grandpa and delved out by Grandma.

The melons had rested in a large metal washtub smothered in ice all morning. Grandpa took pride in selecting the biggest, superbly ripened melons that south Texas had to offer.

We’d play hide ‘n seek, tag and other games after lunch and until we were called for the traditional watermelon serving.

Oh my word, most of us were so sloppy and our bellies would get so full that we’d have to go dry off in the sun and then rest under a shade tree after the required water hose sprayoffs.

Night time brought out fireflies and gathering on hay bales or lawn chairs around a campfire. Uncle Sherman Sanders usually brought his guitar. Aunts, uncles and occasionally some of us cousins would take turns singing. Hits from Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Patsy Cline, Ray Price and Kitty Wells were special highlights.

Grandpa knew his fruits and vegetables. Since the 1920s, he worked along side his brothers in potato fields, corn patches and farms in various areas from around Kelly Air Force Base, southwest of the Alamo City, to near Floresville further southeast.

As the Dennis brothers (Jack, Burt and Bill) became more entrepreneurial, they’d hitch up a couple of horses (Dennis’s always had horses) to a large wagon each May for their annual trip to Fredericksburg.

The four or five day clever journey  allowed stopovers along the Old Spanish Trail until they reached the Boerne Stage Road at Leon Springs. There, they’d take the time for swimming and fishing.

“We ate whatever we caught at our campsite each evening,” Grandpa would retell the story many times. “For some reason, Burt could always outfish us, but we didn’t mind. and he helped keep our bellies full. We usually slept in the wagon and looked up at the millions of stars.”

“One year it rained and we had to sleep under the wagon, that night” he laughed.

After their watermelons and peaches were picked and loaded, they’d bring them back to San Antonio for selling to merchants at the Farmer’s Market near downtown and some at the Stock Yards.

They would return in August for strawberries and then southward for watermelons and other seasonal offerings.

When I was 12, Grandpa began picking me up before sunrise and taking me to his “secret watermelon farm,” the place he’d been buying from for many years. About the time the sun appeared, he’d back his pickup into a friend’s property near Dilley, Texas. The watermelons were waiting for us, stacked high on platforms so I could receive them easily within arms reach from the farmer’s workers and place them in the truck bed.

We’d bring them back to my little produce stand on Commercial Avenue in south San Antonio. The profits were split 50/50 between him and me on the melons. I manned that stand until I was 15.

Over the years I saw and heard people’s various tips about how to pick the best watermelon. Some looked for a large amount of brown webbing as a good indicator of a sweet melon, or that elongated “male” watermelons are more watery and bland than rounder “female” fruits. Others insisted on looking for a green, curly tendril or a dry, brown stem. Good luck with that!

Here’s some secrets I learned about watermelons from Grandpa:

Unlike many other types of fruit, watermelon will not ripen any further once it’s harvested. It also doesn’t readily announce its ripeness; the outside doesn’t turn soft like a peach does, and it doesn’t emit a sweet scent like a cantaloupe.

The truth is, according to Grandpa, there are really only two or three things you need to look for to find the best watermelon in the bunch, whether you’re at the grocery store or a farm stand.

1. Looking for darker green watermelons that aren’t too shiny. Be alert to notice the color between the stripes and check for a yellow belly. The creamy yellow patch is the “field spot” where the watermelon rested on the ground. The whiter this ground spot is, the less time the melon had to ripen on the vine before being picked, so a deeper, more buttery shade has a better, sweeter flavor.

2. It should feel heavy for its size. This can be hard to judge if you’re not used to hefting watermelons, but pick up a few of a similar size and see if you can tell that one seems heavier. That’s your best bet. When you’re weighing the merits of your melons, also check the rind; you shouldn’t feel much give since the outside of the fruit stays firm even when ripe. The stem end should have a little bit of flex, but if there are any other soft spots, pick another one, no matter how heavy it feels.

3. Make sure it sounds hollow when you thump it. Always thump it. It takes a bit of practice, but you’ll learn that if you tap or flick the underside of the melon, it should produce a deep, low-pitched, hollow sound, rather than a dull ping. It’s not totally foolproof, but considered with the first tips, improves the chances. 

A special treat was when we had “yellow meat” watermelons. These
yellow-fleshed melons are a natural mutation that look the same as your standard red or pink watermelon from outside, so just pick them the same way. They tender to taste a bit sweeter, almost floral-honey like. 

Now for the term “truck:”

In the 1800s, farms or family gardens that  produced vegetables and fruit, would call the offerings or portions setaside for sale (rather than for the owner’s own personal use).

“What’s in your truck today?” meant “what do you have in your garden, field, box, bag, table, etc. that is available to purchase?”

Prior to the 1800s, it was a term meaning to barter or sell, as in a commodity.

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