On Being Green and Watermelon Pickles

We just bought a used truck which necessitated a trip to North Georgia to pick up the Pick-up. As the city sprawl dissipated into the rear-view mirror, my mind wandered to my years of rural living.

My father became intrigued by the “back-to-the-land movement” that began in the early 1970s. As a result, we packed up and moved 1,000 miles (almost exactly) from the suburbs of Boston to the foot hills of the Appalachian Mountains. We lived on a 30-acre would-be farm complete with three acres of blueberry bushes and a small flock of sheep. A Mother Earth News subscriber, my father embraced the revived interest in the ecology movement and self-sufficiency.

Mother Earth News magazine was a campy, utilitarian publication which concentrated on do-it-yourself and how-to articles such as gardening, food preservation, home brewing your own beer, geodesic domes, and distilling your own ethanol for fuel. My favorite article explained how to use a rain poncho to pitch a tent, make a hammock, protect your food from bears, catch fish and use it as a sail for your escape raft.

I get tickled when I read articles about “going green.” If you truly turned green with every earth-friendly deed then I would be a lovely shade of Cal-Poly-Pomona green. While I would like to claim that my motives have always been purely altruistic, that is not the case. We were green because we couldn’t afford to be anything else.

In the spirit of self-sufficiency and  necessary thriftiness, absolutely nothing went to waste. My mother was the original "frugal gourmet.” Like the poncho, she could finagle several meals from one chuck roast. Necessity is not the only mother of invention, so is hunger. I read recipes for Brunswick stew made with ingredients specifically purchased for that purpose and chuckle out loud. Growing up it was an afterthought - all the left overs (or the edible remnants of the last butchering project) thrown in a pot with whatever seasonings you could rustle up. (I hope you are not looking for a recipe here because no batch was ever the same.)

Nowadays we pay more for organic produce. In my youth organic meant “home grown” and we ate it not to be healthy but because it was cheap or free.  We also ate anything we could forage; in other words, bird fodder, scavenged blackberries, dandelion and poke (weed) salad, crab apples, and scuppernong juice. We bartered blueberries for venison and traded zucchini for homemade sausage.

Nothing went to waste; ever! Take for example a watermelon; the quintessential symbol for the opening day of the Summer season. Eaten fresh, the lycopene-rich red flesh is refreshing and elemental. A spiked watermelon?  How blasphemous! Not that I am a watermelon purist, but I actually like the flavor of watermelon. (Why did you buy the watermelon if you wanted it to taste like something else?) Amazingly versatile, frozen watermelon makes delicious granitas, as well as an invigorating mojito (courtesy of Ina Garten). But wait, there’s more. With a coating of sugar and black pepper, watermelon grilled for 5 or so minutes on the grill is divine.

Then of course there is the rind. Before committing them to the obligatory compost pile, consider a batch of watermelon rind pickles. (My husband and children call me the Princess of Pickles or the Duchess of Dill because if it can't be frozen, I make it into pickles.) Possibly the earliest published recipe for watermelon pickles appears in the first known cookbook written by an American, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery published in 1796. Since, her recipe for pickled melon bears very little resemblance to today’s pickled fruit recipes, here is my mine instead:

  • 6 cups peeled watermelon rind, cut into 1″ pieces
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
  • 1 lemon, cut into slices
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick

Trim the pink flesh and peel the green outer skin from the rind. Be careful not to cut yourself because the outer layer is harder than you think. I used a vegetable peeler and patience. Once peeled, cut the rind into small 1” cubes. Cover the cubes with a brine made in the proportion of 1/4 cup salt for each 1 quart of water. Refrigerate for five hours or overnight.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, drain rind from the brine and place in boiling water. Cook until just tender which should take about 15-20 minutes or until watermelon rind is translucent. In a separate saucepan bring sugar, vinegar, cloves, cinnamon, and lemon to a boil over high heat. 

Pack the cooked watermelon rinds loosely into clean, hot jars. Cover with boiling pickle syrup, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remember to remove air bubbles and adjust headspace if needed. Wipe the rims of jars with a dampened paper towel and secure lids. Let cool. Check seals and wait a day or two before opening to let the rind fully absorb the syrup. These are best served with grilled meats and Summer picnic fare.

A little bit more about watermelons:

Watermelon is thought to have originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa. The first recorded watermelon harvest nearly 5,000 years ago is depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Southern food historians believe that watermelon made its way to the United States with African slaves.

Like other members of the squash family, watermelons don’t continue to ripen once they’ve been picked, so this is an important clue to watch for. Since watermelons are 92% water, you want a watermelon that is symmetrical and evenly heavy. The outside rind should be firm and blemish free with a deep green shell. Look for the tell-tale “ripe spot”. It will be on the bottom of the watermelon and a light yellow or creamy color. This spot develops as the melon grows on the soil. If the spot is greenish or white in color, it’s not ripe yet. Conversely, soft spots are a sign it’s starting to turn bad. Best chilled at least 12 hours before eating. Be sure to scrub the outside down well with soap and water so that you do not drag the germs down into the fruit as you cut it open with your knife.