Our Eating Lives features stories about how food, cooking, and eating have shaped who we are and how we live.
This is a guest post by Bob Bires. He is a private school English teacher and administrator. While sharing an apartment with three other guys at Penn, he first learned to cook by raiding his mother’s recipe box and relying heavily on the Three Rivers Cookbook of his native Pittsburgh. Now he cooks all meals for his family. He lives in Tennessee and plays in a band that cannot come up with a name for itself. Follow him on Twitter @BobBires.
I was eyeing the strawberries at my local produce stand a couple of weeks ago when an elderly woman approached the large box of watermelons in front of me. She bent down to them, and with a flick of her finger, she thumped a melon. Then she moved on to the next one and the next, methodically tapping and listening to each one until, when she seemed to have settled on one, I asked her, “What are you trying to hear?”
“How deep they are,” she said. I nodded, as if I knew what she meant, and with her frail arms, she lifted one, not the largest or the smallest, and put it in her cart.
Oh, these summer months, when the fruit comes in by the truckload, having been “graded” somewhere by a grower or shipper only to re-endure examination by the likes of old ladies and me. For I have my own melon methods, as well as peach procedures, avocado assessments, and other produce practices. Don’t you?
The conventional wisdom says this: buy the heaviest melon for its size that you can find. Once a watermelon exceeds, say, 30 pounds, that system lets most of us down. Heavy for its size becomes simply heavy, or heavy because of its size.
My father often tells me that the darkest green watermelons are the sweetest. And then he’ll tell me about these gigantic beauties that they used to ship up from Texas, but that he doesn’t see anymore. Now, instead, he says that the ripest melons have a yellow spot where they were touching the dirt, not a pale, whitish spot. There are some varieties, mainly those with light green skin, that he simply won’t buy. Sometimes he just defaults to his Depression-era sensibilities and buys the biggest one that he can find.
Is he right? Or does thumping a melon tell you which one is the best? I find myself living by these same rules. I can’t help it, so ingrained they have become in me from listening to him and watching people in stores, and, I have to say, from enjoying the sweet, ripe results of all of those pushes, and presses, and lifts, and squeezes.
I’ve been told to stay away from berries that attract flies and that a honeydew melon will not ripen any further once it’s been picked, so I will only buy one with a soft end. I know the same is true of figs, having waited in vain for days for some figs to ripen for jam and then going ahead and making the jam anyway, hoping that they would somehow sweeten up in the cooking. They didn’t. My jam tasted like still unripe figs.
Self-conscious when I first started prodding produce, I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing, even if no one else could tell. Slowly, though, I’ve developed a “feel.” I’ve got knowing hands in a basket of avocados or peaches–not only can I find ripe ones, but I can also gauge how many days from now the hard ones will be ready (but not too unripe or they will never ripen properly). Sometimes I get simpatico nods from women who know how to choose their fruit. And there’s nothing better than being asked by someone you don’t know “Can you find me a couple of good ones?” and actually being able to find them.
When it comes to fruit, I gather every tip, trick, or touch technique I can, no matter how strange it may seem. I assume that all of them are true, especially if they come from the elderly, who trust themselves to choose what they will like from what is in front of them, even as they search on for the large, dark melons of misty memory.
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