So why did we spend 90 summers eating bland, seedless fruit at every barbecue?
Image via bradfordwatermelons.com by Heather Grilliot
Ponder, if you will, the watermelon. The healthy, electrolyte-rich fruit has long been the signature snack of summer. But for generations, the seedless, pale slices populating paper plates in backyard barbecues across America were flavorless shadows of a once-great fruit. Things got so bad that in 2011, Mother Jones declared “the death of the watermelon”; a year earlier, the Washington Post observed that watermelons had become so “mealy and tasteless” that a fruit once destined to be eaten “out of hand” was far more likely to be found diced dully into “fruit salads.”
Image via bradfordwatermelons.com
Yet there was a time when the deep South boasted a watermelon so juicy, so decadent, the people who grew it strung their fields with electrocuting wires or stood by at night with guns to deter thieves. It was called the Bradford melon, after the Sumter, South Carolina family who first cultivated it “during the great age of experimental horticulture in the South—from 1830 to 1860” (as stated on their website). When plucked from the vine, a Bradford melon routinely weighed in at 30 or 40 pounds. Open one up, and you’ll find pearly white seeds, brilliant red juice, and a succulent texture—the soft, smooth rind can be scooped out with a spoon and is perfect for pickling. But that tender rind made Bradford melons susceptible to damage in transit, so they were supplanted by varieties with hard rinds that could be stacked and shipped. By 1922, the Bradford melon had all but died out in a commercial sense, and we’ve been eating sweet-enough, if oddly-textured, impostors ever since.
For 90 years, the melon lived on like a forgotten keepsake in the Bradford family backyard—until 2012, when Nat Bradford—landscape architect and heirloom farmer, great-great-great-grandson of the melon’s creator—realized he was actually the steward of a once-great southern melon, and that he could and would revive it.
“My family maintained the watermelon for 100 years,” explains Nat. But it wasn’t until 2012 that David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina, and author of Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine, confirmed for Nat that he had the genuine historic melon.
Four years later, the Bradford has staged a comeback—starring in a popular segment on the PBS series Mind of a Chef, thriving in gardens across the South, tempting chefs to recreate historic recipes, transforming it into brandies and craft beers, and growing as far north as Charlottesville, Virginia, at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate. (Should you be in town, a watermelon tasting will be offered on-site on September 10, at the 10th Annual Heritage Harvest Festival, and you can listen in as three-time James Beard nominee Tyler Brown waxes poetically about the melons.)
Brown isn’t the only chef entranced by the Bradford. At the new Shovel and Pick restaurant in historic Bristol, Virginia, Chef Travis Milton—who spent much of his childhood planting seeds and preserving Appalachian harvests alongside his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents—plans to use molasses, vinegar, and cold-pressed seed oil from this year’s crop of melons. “The seed oil is simply phenomenal,” he says. It was his mother, Rene, who grew a dozen Bradford watermelons in her own garden last summer and gave him some. “Most people don’t know a real watermelon,” says Rene. “I grew up eating them and they should be so juicy the water runs down the sides of your mouth. When I tasted the Bradford out of my own garden I was like, ‘Holy smokes! It’s the watermelon revival! It’s the taste of my childhood!’”
But the Bradford isn’t just gracing tables at homes and in restaurants. At Casselmonte Farm on the Appomattox River in Powhatan County, Virginia, cofounder Bill Cox and his wife India juiced the melons and sold them to Hardywood Craft Brewery in Richmond, VA. Known for their unusual stouts, including fruit-based ones like peach, raspberry, and blackberry, the brewery will be making a watermelon stout later this year.
The nutritious Bradford is even being featured as part of an actual fruit and veggie prescription program offered to low-income residents with food-related health problems such as diabetes and obesity, and funded by Wholesome Wave of Georgia. The melons are being grown for Wholesome Wave by Icebox Farm, which is part of Icebox Ministries, a nonprofit located in North Augusta, South Carolina. Says owner Steve Fountain, “This year we will have thirty-five individuals who have gone to a clinic in the Harrisburg-Augusta, Georgia area, and in addition to their normal prescriptions, they are given a natural prescription for fruits and vegetables. They get $1 day per person per family, so a family of four would get $28 week to spend on fruits and vegetables. We also offer classes in on how to prepare their food and how to ‘stretch’ what they get to make more meals.”
Meanwhile, gardener and seed-saver Philip Wingard, of Clover SC, saved thousands of seeds from the melons he grew in 2014 and 2015, and they are now available at Seed Savers Exchange for $5 a packet (including shipping). “The Bradford is out of the South now,” says Bill Cox. “Who knows where it will be growing in a few years.”
When Nat Bradford thinks back about the journey of the last few years, and the folks he has met along the way who remembered stories of the Bradford and wanted to grow it again, he concludes that the melon is more than a melon. “It represents flavor, resilience, relationships, and sharing between families and friends. It’s really encouraging to see all that coming back.”