Yesterday I shared a Juneteenth memory–roasting ears. Today I’m sharing memories of two more foods that made June special.
The first is even better than roasting ears: watermelon, which is grown around Luling, ten miles from my hometown. Corn could be frozen for use any time, but when I was a child, watermelon made you w-a-i-t. And once the season was past, that was that. It took forever for Juneteenth to roll around again.*
For more than sixty years, Luling-ites have celebrated each harvest with the Watermelon Thump, a long weekend of music, dance, a parade, carnival rides, arts and crafts exhibitions, the coronation of the Thump Queen, watermelon eating contests, and the event that stands out from all the rest–the World Championship Seed Spitting Competition, which takes place at the Watermelon Spitway. According to Thump history,
In 1989** a Guinness World Record was set for the first time in Luling for the longest watermelon seed-spit. The record of 65 feet, 4 inches was set by John Wilkinson, a festival attendee from Houston, Texas. Then in 1989,** a local man, Lee Wheelis, re-established the record spitting a distance of 68 feet, 9 1/8 inches. This year a $500 cash prize will be awarded to the top spitter in the Championship Contest and should Luling’s record distance be broken, an additional $500 will be added to the top prize.
In addition, “[s]pitting champions have also been featured guests on the Tonight Show starring Jay Leno, the Regis and Kathy Lee Show, and Howie Mandell’s show.”
Luling also claims to have the world’s largest watermelon. Click here to see a picture.
But, although the Watermelon Thump is a grand festival, it’s really beside the point. The pleasure is in the eating.
I don’t have the words to describe the taste of watermelon, but Mark Twain did:
“The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took: we know it because she repented.”
The italics are mine. And Twain was right. Who could repent of eating watermelon?
(Not wishing to spread misinformation I looked it up. The Bible doesn’t say Eve repented after eating the forbidden fruit, but, all things considered, I’ll bet she did.)
My last Juneteenth memory is Aunt Bettie Waller’s birthday. She was married to my great-uncle Maurice from 1905 till his death in 1970, and I don’t think they ever had a cross word between them. That’s not an exaggeration. They were crazy about each other and spent a lot of time laughing. He was the quietest person I’ve ever known, though; when other people guffawed, he just shook. Occasionally Aunt Bettie would decide they should do something, such as air condition the house or turn a screened porch into a sitting room, and he would disagree. When that happened, she talked–quietly, mildly, just mentioning it from time to time–until, after a while, she’d convinced him it was his idea. And after it was done, he was always so pleased with the result.
She did report one major subject of discord. When their son, Pete, was very young, Uncle Maurice refused to discipline him because “he won’t love me.” Aunt Bettie pleaded: “If you don’t make him behave, he won’t know you’re his father.” Once when Uncle Maurice corrected him, Pete retorted, “Uh-uh. That’s Ma’s job.” Then one night at dinner, Pete lobbed a plate of food at Uncle Maurice, and family dynamics underwent a radical change. Everybody kept on loving everybody else.
We often celebrated Aunt Bettie’s birthday with a dinner, featuring corn and watermelon, of course–but the entree was always hamburgers. To her, that was what the angels eat.
Treated to lunch once at a fashionable restaurant, Aunt Bettie ordered a hamburger. Her host expressed disapproval, something along the lines of, “Miss Bettie, I didn’t invite you to this restaurant for a meal you can get at the Dairy Queen. Order anything you want.” Aunt Bettie wanted a hamburger.
The menu at our gatherings rarely varied. Each woman brought a signature dish. Even for her own party, Aunt Bettie made potato salad. Unfortunately, no one asked for the recipe; there probably wasn’t one. The secret ingredient was probably sugar. That generation of Wallers put sugar into everything–and still, most of them were built like scarecrows.
Aunt Bettie lived to be 101. She would have been 132 last Tuesday. She was a delight to be around, and I miss her.
I miss that potato salad, too. I wish I had the recipe. More to the point, I wish I had a big bowl of it.
And I wish I were one of the Wallers built like a scarecrow.
*Watermelons are available all year in grocery stores now, shipped in from Elsewhere. No waiting. Small. Bland. They’re not the same.
** The paragraph from the Thump webpage was copied and pasted into this post. I assume one of the dates reading 1989 is a typographical error.
Concerning titles: In 1997, the Texas Legislature declared Knox City the “Seedless Watermelon Capital of Texas.” Both Dilley and Hempstead claim to be the Watermelon Capital of Texas.
Washington Post subscribers can read more about seed spitting in Luling at https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/at-texas-festival-watermelon-seed-spitting-is-big-sport/2014/06/26/4c58d270-f588-11e3-a606-946fd632f9f1_story.html