THE EARTH LADY: It's your patriotic duty to eat watermelon on Fourth of July

On July 4, 1776, a homesick Thomas Jefferson was sweltering in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pa., as he added the finishing touches and flourishes to that historic document, The Declaration of Independence.

Longing for his beloved Monticello where the watermelons were ripening on the vine, Thomas Jefferson did not get home for a slice of watermelon that first Fourth of July, but thanks to all patriots, then and now, most Americans will proudly display the flag and celebrate this country's independence with parades, fireworks and a picnic. And what would a Fourth of July picnic be without watermelon, the South's quintessential fruit?

Any Southerner who does not eat watermelon or does not know how to thump a watermelon and determine the ripeness by sound should be eyed with suspicion. In the South watermelons have been relished by rich and poor alike, and in hard times watermelons were an inexpensive treat. And speaking of hard times, during the Depression the watermelon helped to rescue the town of Water Valley. In 1931 the railroad had vacated the town and cotton was selling for only 4 cents a pound, and so in desperation the Chamber of Commerce turned to the watermelon to help revitalize the economy. They organized the first Watermelon Carnival or Festival, and to this day, it continues to be an annual event. (This year's festival will be August 2-3.)

Mize also has a Watermelon Festival on July 19, which will include a greased watermelon race, a watermelon eating contest and a watermelon seed spitting competition. And before you dismiss such watermelon shenanigans as being provincial and uncouth, please note that even sophisticated Mississippi expatriates living in New York City who attend the annual Mississippi Picnic in Central Park are known to expectorate watermelon seeds with competitive zeal!

Watermelons are definitely a part of our southern culture and heritage, but actually the watermelon is a native plant of Africa, and watermelon seeds over a thousand years old have been found in Egyptian tombs. Dr. David Livingstone, the famous Scottish explorer, discovered watermelons growing in the South African desert and thought the plant and fruit was most interesting. From Africa this popular fruit made its way to Europe and eventually to North America. The early colonists grew watermelons, and, yes, Thomas Jefferson, an inveterate and enthusiastic gardener, did grow watermelons in his garden at Monticello. But once this fruit crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the long, hot and humid summers proved to be ideal for growing watermelons.

Not so long ago, just about everyone who had a vegetable garden also had a watermelon patch. However, today with most folks living in the suburbs and having limited space, growing watermelons may be impractical. Since watermelon vines run rampant, they need lots of room, although there are some smaller cultivars that can be grown on trellises or in beds.

Watermelons range in size from 6 to 40 pounds, but there is nothing quite like a really, big watermelon to attract an admiring, salivating crowd or an intrepid watermelon thief.

Watermelon, of course, is best eaten chilled, fresh and outside so the sticky juice will not make such a mess, and seeds expectorated as needed will not raise the eyebrows of society matrons. If served at a formal reception indoors where spitting is frowned upon, melon balls in a carved melon basket can be speared with handy toothpicks. After the watermelon is consumed there is always the rind, which can be made into watermelon pickles, watermelon wine, or if you are a butterfly fancier, put the rind out in the hot sun to ferment and watch the butterflies gather by the droves to sup the heady nectar.

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, and no celebration or picnic would be complete without a watermelon. By all means, have a cold slice of watermelon. It is your patriotic duty!

The Earth Lady by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal Home & Garden section once a month.