Averyell A. Kessler
I watched closely as Hattie Jean Peaster leaned toward an oak- framed mirror hanging over her dressing table and inspected her face. When she opened her purse and withdrew a shiny tube of Revlon’s Fire Engine Red, I knew something was up. She’d already changed into a Sunday School dress and low heel shoes. She uncapped the lipstick, coated her lips with heart stopping red, then blotted her mouth with a tissue until only a soft pink remained. Hattie Jean was the mother of my best friend, Martha. I spent half of my childhood at her house on St. Mary Street.
“Where are you going?” Martha asked.
“We’re all going.” Hattie Jean said. She opened her compact and patted a fresh dusting of powder over her nose and cheeks. “Put on a clean pair of shorts.”
“Where?” Martha asked again.
“Watermelon,” she said simply.
At my Laurel Street home, watermelon was far more than a tasty bite of sweetness dripping with flavor; it was an event. We called it a watermelon cutting, and it was woven into Belhaven’s social structure just a firmly as an Easter egg hunt, birthday parties, or a swirling sparkler on Fourth of July. Hattie Jean knew the rules and dressed accordingly. She was a delta lady and a party was a party, no matter what kind. With luck, there’d also be a tumbler of Old Grand Dad seasoned with a few ice cubes.
I thought about a Belhaven watermelon cutting last week when I rambled through Kroger’s fruit and veggie department. As always, I saw rows of precision cut watermelon chunks in shiny plastic boxes as well as carefully measured slices also plastic wrapped. (What did they do with the juice?) A few whole watermelons were on a secondary aisle, nestled in a humble cardboard box like abandoned puppies. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. At least they weren’t partnered with kale.
In my growing up days, there were several ways to obtain a watermelon, from someone’s overflowing garden, the Farmers’ Market, or the back of a pick-up on Highway 51 a few miles south of Jackson. The Jitney had them too, but the real fun was selecting the watermelon from a roadside pile of Smith County beauties. Over the years, my father honed the selection process into an art, choosing between green or stripped and large or extra-large (personal seedless watermelons did not exist, and he would have considered them an aberration of nature). Next came his thumping technique to determine if the melon was ripe. A yellowish spot on the bottom was a good indication, but not always. Finally, he asked the watermelon man to cut a small plug out of our chosen melon and offer a sample. Once the decision was made, the watermelon road home in our backseat like a treasured member of the family.
A watermelon cutting was not a solitary occasion or lace tablecloth event. It lacked the elegance of an iced petit four or the delicacy of an angel food cake. Certainly not a romantic dinner for two. A watermelon cutting was a Saturday celebration, a gentle gathering of friends, an invite all the neighbors, come-on-in affair featuring good conversation, ubiquitous cigarettes, and laughter echoing into the night. Emily Post did not attend, neither did cranky relatives or anyone associated with the WCTU. Hattie Jean came with bells on. Sometimes it developed into an impromptu cookout, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The watermelon, now lolling in a tin tub ice bath, was the star. Adults drifted into our backyard and mixed cocktails from bootleg bourbon and icy cokes. They unfolded lawn chairs and settled into a circle as children ran free, playing may I, hopscotch or gathering under a basketball hoop. Mosquito coils were a necessity. So were card tables, newspapers and a sharp butcher knife. Also, a saltshaker for those addicted to the taste. Paper plates weren’t needed. Knives and forks? Laughable! Only a stack of paper napkins was allowed at a watermelon cutting. Keep the hose handy too.
The highlight of the evening occurred when the ice-cold melon was lifted from the tub, placed on a nest of newspapers, and sliced open. Suddenly, the oppressive summer heat didn’t matter as Mother Nature’s best recipe stole the show.
“Who wants the first piece?” Daddy called out. It was his mantra, and the Laurel Street seal of approval for a glistening green melon with honey sweet fruit the color of flaming sunset clouds. The adults received a huge halfmoon slice, the children a carefully carved wedge. We ate it with both hands, tasting heaven as sticky juice ringed out mouths and dribbled down our elbows.
And then, seeds. The disposition of seeds depends on the end game. Do you want to politely dispose of them or spit them at each other in a merry end-of-the-evening melee? Hattie Jean and my mother were in the first group, Martha and I the second. Nothing was more fun than squeezing a seed between your thumb and index finger and watching the slippery devil arc in the air and attack like an angry hornet. Not once, but again and again, especially when the victim wasn’t expecting it. A seed spitting contest was always the last hurrah before children were hustled home for a much-needed bath.
Now, the Fourth of July is approaching, and I want watermelon. Not chunks in a plastic box or anything pre-sliced. I want an authentic Mississippi, field grown beauty that looks like sunshine is sweeter than a sugar cookie. I want to chill it in a tin tub and slice it in the backyard with my grandchildren. I want to hold it in my fingers and nibble it down to the rind. Most of all, I want to show them that I can spit seeds with the best on them! I’m sure Hattie Jean would approve.