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Watermelon: Why has it been so bland this summer?

A bacon, lettuce and watermelon sandwich.

A bacon, lettuce and watermelon sandwich. Credit: Timothy Fadek, 2009

Q: Good watermelon is harder and harder to find. Big, sweet, melons have been replaced with bowling balls that are getting smaller and smaller, a larger proportion of rind to fruit, and frequently tasteless. What's going on? -- Linda Himberger, Huntington

A: I expected to find that some huge, multinational corporation was systematically breeding smaller, taste-free melons in order to increase profits, but that seems not to be the case. I spoke to a fruit retailer, a botany professor and agricultural specialist. All agreed: A watermelon's taste is determined largely by growing conditions, not size.

"You need the right temperature and the right amount of precipitation," said Jimmy Bonaro, produce buyer for Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace. "If it rains too much they get soggy; if the field is too dry, the root pulls the sugar out of the fruit."

Ken Ettlinger, who teaches botany at Suffolk County Community College, speculated that some of the hybrids that have been developed to resist disease may have sacrificed flavor for hardiness, but that while variety can be a factor, size is not.

Sandra Menasha, a specialist at the Suffolk County Cornell Cooperative Extension, pointed out that farmers whose melons are destined for points distant are more likely to grow thick-rinded varieties that will travel well. "A local melon is always going to taste better," she said. Long Island's melon harvest should start in the next few weeks.

No matter how sweet the flesh, smaller melons -- as you point out -- have a smaller proportion of flesh to rind, but that hasn't hurt their sales. Ettlinger said that "the trend has been for smaller and smaller melons because people want to take them home and store them in the refrigerator." That suits most retailers fine since it obviates the need for stores to cut them into halves or quarters -- exposing the flesh to oxygen and hastening decay.

Nevertheless, according to Bonaro, Uncle Giuseppe's tries to stock small, medium and large watermelons, displaying them both whole and portioned. If you're buying a whole melon, his advice is to "give it a good smack. You want to get a vibration. If you just get a flat thump, it's probably overripe and watery."

BLW SANDWICH

Watermelons do a fine job of standing in for tomatoes here. To balance their sweetness, I used peppery wild arugula for the lettuce, and plenty of salt and pepper.

4 slices white bread

1 to 2 tablespoons mayonnaise

Large handful arugula or another peppery green such as watercress

1 large wedge watermelon, sliced about 1/4-inch thick and cut into pieces smaller than the bread

Salt and pepper

6 to 8 strips bacon, fried crisp

1. For each sandwich, toast bread and spread mayonnaise on one slice. On top of the mayonnaise place a layer of arugula, then half the slices of watermelon. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the watermelon. Top with strips of bacon and then with the other slice of toast (on which you can also spread mayonnaise). Repeat with second sandwich.

2. Press sandwiches together and eat with plenty of napkins.

Makes 2 sandwiches.

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