On the menu: When it comes to watermelon, the flavor has disappeared along with the seeds

Cut into the watermelon these days and you're likely to notice something missing. Where are the seeds? Maybe, like me, you've bitten into said watermelon and noticed something else missing. Where is the taste?

Perhaps this is a minor issue to inspire a crusade, but to me it's just the final straw. Tomatoes are bred to ripen to a bright red on command, to stay firm and to survive being shipped halfway or more across the country. But that's a crusade for another time.

Did you know?
  • Watermelon was harvested and eaten 5,000 years ago in Egypt.
  • Watermelons have more lycopene than tomatoes.
  • The average watermelon is 92 percent water.
  • On June 6, a jumbo black watermelon was sold at a Japanese auction for $6,100, making it the world's most expensive watermelon.

In memory at least, watermelon used to be an incredibly reliable fruit -- juicy and sweet with firm, crisp flesh. Yet in the past few years it seems that every watermelon I cut into is either pale pink with a green taste or so overripe it has a tasteless, mushy texture. Since it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify the ripeness of watermelon without cutting into it, consumers are basically at the mercy of the supply line.

I can't prove that seedless watermelons are responsible for this trend, but it's hard to ignore the fact that the incredible watermelons of my childhood all had those telltale black seeds, while the watermelons that have recently disappointed me are consistently seedless.

Seedless watermelons are part of a greater trend toward convenience food. It's easy to remember a time when supermarkets didn't sell lettuce washed and bagged, squash pre-peeled and cut into chunks, or a quarter of a watermelon wrapped in plastic. This type of packaging might cut down on work in the kitchen, but that's not why stores are using it. They're selling it because they can charge more for it.

Of course, the reason that they keep selling it is that people are buying it. According to a 2006 consumer report by the National Watermelon Promotion Board, 60 percent of respondents prefer seedless watermelons, while only 18 percent prefer seeded watermelons. That's a shame. Watermelon seeds may be a little inconvenient and they may make watermelon a bit messier to eat, but they're also a lot of fun. A few generations from now, will children even be able to conceive of a watermelon seed-spitting contest?

Barry Leicher, who owns Leicher Family Farm in Chicora, Butler County, thinks they probably won't. He's growing seeded watermelons this year. "I

think the seeded ones taste better," noted Mr. Leicher, but they also picked seeded watermelons because they are an organic (noncertified) farm, and pressure from insects and animals makes seeded watermelons a better bet.

New and improved?

Growing watermelons at all is a complex business. Vines produce male and female flowers. The male flowers provide pollen, and the female flowers must be pollinated at least 30 to 40 times to produce good fruit.

Producing seedless watermelon seeds adds another layer of difficulty. The plants that grow from seedless watermelon seeds are sterile, so in order to produce watermelons, about one-quarter of each field must be sown with normal, seeded watermelon plants to provide the pollen.

In recent years, breeders have developed seeded plants that grow marble- or fist-sized watermelon, so that they can be crushed, ensuring that the pollen is transferred to the seedless plants.

Because seedless varieties are difficult to grow, small farms rarely go to the trouble. Because smaller producers usually have to sell watermelons at a higher price, they are less likely to be able to pass off the cost difference to buyers. Large, conventional farms can pass along the cost difference because they are more driven by market demands.

Because very few stores sell seeded and seedless side by side, most consumers don't consider that if they were buying seeded watermelon, they'd probably be paying less.

But, after all this work, we still don't have an answer to the question: Is there a difference in the quality and taste of seedless vs. seeded watermelons?

Bob Omlor, owner of Honeydale Organic Farms in Darlington, Beaver County, is something of a local watermelon expert. He thinks that seedless watermelons can taste just as good as seeded, if they're grown properly, but he has found that commercial watermelons can rarely stand up to those grown on small farms, especially organic farms, and he has the numbers to back it up.

"We also did something a lot of people don't," said Mr. Omlor. "We had a device called a refractometer. It's a simple little optical device. You put the juice on it ??? and it reads on a little dial and it tells you what percentage of sugar you have," also known as the "brix."

In his experience, "If they check 8 or above they're pretty decent. A lot of ours checked 11 or 12. The highest we've ever had were 13 or 14. A lot of the commercial ones would be 4, 5, 6."

Sweetness isn't some random characteristic of watermelon (or any fruit).

Mr. Omlor explained, "You need to give it good fertilizer for one, and that's one reason a lot of times the organically grown watermelons are sweeter. In many cases when they're fed with regular chemical fertilizer, it grows a nice big watermelon fast but it doesn't give it the minerals that give [watermelon] their sweetness."

Local, organic, sweet

So while seedlessness isn't necessarily to blame, evidence suggests that buying seedless watermelons out of season or from the grocery store is usually going to result in watermelons that weren't raised with the same care and attention as those you can buy at your local market, unless, of course, your grocery store is buying local watermelons. Before Mr. Omlor retired, he sold some of his watermelons to the East End Co-Op and Whole Foods, as well as to farmers markets in Beaver County. Buy organic, local (and usually seeded) watermelon, and you are much more likely to relish every sweet, crisp, juicy bite.

Of course, that's not the most satisfying answer. The National Watermelon Board Consumer Report also discovered that 70 percent of consumers would purchase more watermelon if it had "a sweeter flavor," but almost as many reported they would purchase more if it were available to them year-round. These two desires are clearly at odds. The problem with all of this plant breeding and advertising is that it seems to have made people believe that we can make fruits and vegetables do anything we want.

We've tried changing the watermelon, but that hasn't gone so well, so maybe now we need to try changing our expectations.

This year, local watermelons won't be available until mid-August at the earliest, and some farmers tell me they won't be available until early September. Let's make it a new tradition: Watermelon for Labor Day.

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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