From produce aisle to checkout lane: All things grocery in Washington

Watermelon: Up close and ‘personal’

May 25, 2011 - 04:44 AM
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Watermelon season is officially in swing, with the first melons plucked from south Florida farms in April and Georgia farmers gearing up to harvest in about a week. Our region’s crop will arrive a month too late for this weekend’s Memorial Day picnics, but plenty of out-of-state options will be available, including many melons flying under the banner “personal watermelon.”

Of the 4.1 billion pounds of watermelon grown in the U.S. and the additional billion imported from Central America, an untold number will be decidedly miniature. Ever since the petite personal variety hit the scene a decade ago, these baby watermelons have sold like gangbusters.

Bob Morrissey, executive director the National Watermelon Association, says the personal watermelon was engineered for a niche market: young urbanites and thrifty seniors.

Personal watermelons attract seniors, “who are born and raised not to be wasteful,” he explains. I chuckle, which is the wrong response because Morrissey pauses and says, “Very honestly.”

Seniors, he says, are “used to cleaning their plate and not being wasteful,” which makes a full-sized watermelon an impractical choice for a pair of retirees.

Similarly, “young people living in cities” don’t have the space for a 15-pounder in their mini-fridges. “They’re also perfect for young singles and young couples,” Morrissey says. “They basically fill a need that 10 years ago we didn’t know about.”

The old, the young, and everyone in between can appreciate the economic strategy of the personal watermelon. “Those personal watermelons have a much smaller rind, so you’re actually getting more watermelon meat for the pound than you are in a traditional watermelon,” Morrissey points out. Watermelon in general is already one of the more economical price-by-pound pieces of produce on the market today, making the personal watermelon an especially sound financial choice for consumers.

The addition of the personal watermelon to the melon market did not, to the surprise of some, cut into sales of traditional watermelons. Instead, people bought more melons. “It has worked out extremely well,” says Morrissey.

Customers transitioned easily into buying personal watermelons because the process for picking out a good one is the same. “It’s actually really easy,” Morrissey says, outlining three steps for watermelon purchase success.

First, note the fruit’s heft—“It should be heavy because it’s 92 percent water.”

Second, examine the underside. “There’s a spot that should be on the bottom of the watermelon where it sat on the ground when it was growing,” Morrissey says. “That spot should be a yellow or a pale shade of yellow. That mean’s it’s ripe.” If the spot is white, the melon isn’t necessarily bad. “But you might just want to let it sit on your kitchen counter for a day or two,” Morrissey advises.

Third, set the melon on a flat, even surface and give it a whap. “Slap the top of it with your open hand, and you should hear a thump.”

The history of the personal watermelon hasn’t been without a little rain. Right around the time the variety was being developed, a catastrophic blight hit watermelon world. “It was referred to in our business as watermelon vine decline,” Morrissey says gravely. Within 3-7 days of the illness hitting a field, the farmer’s entire crop could be wiped out. A research team was immediately assembled to crack the case. The Florida watermelon industry lost $60 million to the plague until, as Morrissey says, “a small miracle happened.”

“The research team discovered a previously unknown virus that was in the vines,” he says. “It was being transferred from plant to plant by white flies.” The team worked quickly to develop a white fly spray management program.

“We’ve been able to pretty much minimize and, in most cases, eliminate the damage,” Morrissey says, provided the farmer stick with the white fly spray program. “That was a huge win for us.”

The personal watermelon has also fought off competition from other novelty varieties, including alternatively colored options. “There’s a yellow-colored watermelon,” says Morrissey. (He advises me to “just picture a red watermelon except it’s yellow.”) “It was the sweetest watermelon we’ve ever had,” he declares. An additional orange-colored watermelon exists, but Morrissey says these circus freak melons “haven’t been able to get the major exposure like the personal ones have.” Blessed with good press, the personal reigns as America’s favorite novelty watermelon.

But why the name?

Morrissey doesn’t know. Why didn’t the makers of this new fruit go with the more trendy “baby” prefix (baby carrots, baby spinach, etc) and tap into that yuppie produce mentality? Was the “personal” a product of Oprah-era narcissism, a nod to the importance of the individual? Or an attempt to channel the earlier success of the Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza? A mystery it remains.

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