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The average watermelon is approximately 92 percent water by weight. But, as one special event organizer discovered last week, it's 100 percent summertime nostalgia.
Steve Reich, vice president of marketing for Associated Retail Stores, said he knew watermelon was the natural food of choice to kick off the grand opening of a Macey's in Lehi.
It's sweet and easy to transport. So Reich and event organizers went big, shipping in more than 8,000 watermelons for display and eating. He was surprised by how many in attendance started sharing stories between bites.
"Everyone has a watermelon memory," Reich said. "Whether it's spitting out seeds or walking through a patch. More than any other food, watermelon has the essence and attitude of summer."
Utah's cold, drenched spring may mean fewer locally grown watermelons when the Utah town of Green River rolls out its annual Melon Days celebration in mid-September, soon after they ripen in late August.
"It may end up the poorest crop I've ever had," said Lee Thayn, a 71-year-old farmer who has grown watermelons in Green River since 1979.
In the meantime, Utah gets its fix from growers in Arizona and Mexico. Because both a federal and state holiday fall in the same month, July is Utah's biggest month for the watermelon. To put it simply, almost nothing can stop the ceremonial food of the all-American summer.
Marsha Gilford, vice president of public affairs for Smith's Food & Drug Stores, estimates its Utah stores sell more than half a million pounds of watermelon over the two holidays alone. Whole Foods Market, the Texas-based natural and organic foods chain, makes sure its aisles are well stocked, too.
"The Fourth of July is more or less unthinkable without it," said Lydia Martinez, store marketing specialist at Whole Foods' Sugar House location in Salt Lake City. "It's as traditional as turkey for Thanksgiving."
Tips about the best buy are as dependable as they are old: Heft one in your hands for the heaviest melon, which tells you if it's juicy and full of water. A slightly hollow thump means a riper, sweeter pick.
Consistent with Americans' increasingly adventurous eating habits, watermelon recipes have advanced. Martinez said watermelon makes a delicious treat grilled. And if you imbibe, the juice is an excellent mixer. Metropolitan, a high-end restaurant in Salt Lake City, has served watermelon juice as a stand-alone specialty at its summer kiosk during the Twilight Concert Series in Pioneer Park.
What remains controversial among aficionados is the use of salt, which many claim releases more melon sweetness when sprinkled on a fresh-cut slice.
"I've watched people do that all my life," said Thayn. "I always thought it was odd, but now that I'm older, I can admit it tastes really good."
Watermelon fans have come to prize the Green River brand, but sometimes for the wrong reason, Thayn said.
"I've had people from Idaho and all over ask us for seed," he said. "But I don't think it's the seed at all. It's the climate, and the Green River soil that makes them so sweet."
Five things to know about watermelon
Fruit or vegetable? • Most people accept it as both, according to Orlando's National Watermelon Promotion Board. It's sweet, like a fruit. "Like the pepper, tomato and pumpkin, watermelon is botanically a fruit," according to the board's website at watermelon.org. But it's also a gourd that qualifies as a vegetable, just like the squash or pumpkin. "It is planted from seeds or seedlings, harvested, then cleared from the field like other vegetables."
Healthy • It's a good source of cancer-fighting lycopene. Watermelon shares this red phytochemical with tomatoes. Many medical researchers believe lycopene carries potent, anti-cancer properties. To get the most out of your watermelon, do not refrigerate it. Store and eat your watermelon at room temperature about 70 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 percent more lycopene. Watermelon is also an abundant source of beta carotine.
Origins • The watermelon comes from southern Africa, but eventually evolved into more than 1,200 varieties. Egypt's 14th-century ruler, Pharaoh Tutankhamun, had watermelon seeds packed in his tomb for the afterlife. Today, China grows the most watermelons.
Add salt • It really does taste good with salt, or salty food. If you like a salty slice of cheddar cheese with your apple, chances are good you'll warm to watermelon with salt. Many a watermelon memory revolves around eating slices from the back of a pickup truck, with a salt shaker at the ready. Or go fancy by mixing it with other foods known for their salty flavor, such as bits of feta cheese or prosciutto.
Grill it • "When I first heard about this idea, I thought, 'No way,' " said Lydia Martinez, of Whole Foods. "Then I tried it for myself." Grilling, she said, brings out the sugars. Here's her recipe: Drain slices for 5 minutes, then brush or spritz with olive oil on both sides. Grill over high heat for two to three minutes per side, then salt and pepper to taste.