Monday, September 6, 2010

Spitting Watermelon Seeds

The most Southern of all sports in the hot days of summer has to be watermelon-seed spitting, with all due respects to swimming and car racing. Although grown in more than 40 states, the watermelon is especially associated with the South, the home of champion seed spitters.

Because of the region’s heat and humidity, most Southerners have a special relationship with the watermelon beyond cooling us off and keeping us hydrated during the final dog days of summer. At family reunions or church picnics, cold watermelon slices frequently prove more tempting than fried chicken or the favored aunt’s casserole.

In the days before energy drinks and the ubiquitous water bottle, the naturally refreshing watermelon was the choice for staying energized and hydrated. And eating watermelon virtually requires seed spitting. Seed-spitting contests are popular, whether they’re for family bragging rights or national television publicity.

Who has the record for spitting a melon seed? Obviously, the answer has to be a Southerner. Set in 1995 by Texan Jason Schayot, the Guinness world record is 75 feet 2 inches.

The World Championship of Watermelon-Seed Spitting is claimed by the folks in Luling, Texas (home of the previous champion). At the town’s annual Watermelon Thump, seed spitting is serious business. A prize as high as $1,000 awaits the record breaker. Even ESPN has covered the event. Contestants often warm up to chants such as: “Come on everybody, take a look, (insert name) gonna spit into the record book.”

Our state celebrates the watermelon all summer, although events peak in July (Watermelon Month for North Carolina) at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, where seed spitting is one of the contests. Our watermelon queen’s skills for spitting seeds are usually impressive, sometimes more so than the male contestants’. The 2007 queen propelled a seed 23 feet.

Because of seed spitting, most of us think of watermelon as the fruit loaded with thin, black, minute projectiles ready to splat against a cousin’s face or get lost in a pretty girl’s blouse. However, as The New York Times recently reported, most growers are focusing on seedless watermelons. “Only about 2 of every 10 sold in the United States have seeds.” The seedless picnic melon, which began flooding stores in the 1980s, now dominates the market.

The seedless variety also seems to receive preferential treatment, with prominent displays in the grocery stores, but savvy shoppers wander until they find the ones marked seeded. A good bite of watermelon always gathers a few choice seeds.

Let’s continue the tradition: Spit watermelon seeds, and hope that next year on Labor Day the traditional melon is still available. We need to keep the seed of competition alive.

Note: This posting was published originally as “Top Seed in a Summer Sport” in The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) on Aug. 4, 2010 (page A15).

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