Driving 127 miles for a watermelon

This ‘Life In Quarantine’ column originally ran on Sunday, August 30, 2020 in The Gaston Gazette and five other newspapers throughout North and South Carolina.

It only took a week to muster the courage to share the news with my girlfriend, Jillian, that we were now the proud owners of a special watermelon. I also shared the news with her that I paid $20 for it. And that we were going to have to drive 127 miles to Sumter, SC to pick it up.

I know what you’re thinking: “Ben, you’re crazy.” And maybe I am. But these are crazy times we’re living in. Nothing is normal these days. Up is down, left is right, and the pepperoni is the latest item on the endangered species list.

So, in the spirit of Mama Gump, “crazy is as crazy does”. After all, sometimes you have to do something just a little bit crazy just to know you’re alive.

But this is no ordinary watermelon we’re talking about here. This is a Bradford watermelon – – an heirloom watermelon variety that dates back to around the 1850’s. In addition to being one of the oldest watermelon varieties, it also just so happens to be one of the sweetest too.

The Bradford watermelon looks like a giant cucumber on the outside, but has a red flesh and large white seeds on the inside. The rind is softer than most watermelons, making it difficult to transport for any considerable distances.

That’s probably why you’ve never seen one or tasted one before. It’s what they call a roadside melon. It is a ‘farm to table’ melon – in the truest sense.

The Bradford was popular among farmers back in the day. It was so popular that farmers would have to guard their fields by night. It often took guns, barbed wire and even poison to discourage robbers and thieves from stealing their harvest. People have literally died in an attempt to get their hands on a Bradford watermelon.

Over time, the Bradford fell out of favor with farmers as breeders were able to create watermelon varieties with more desirable traits including those with a harder rind making it easier to ship long distances.

But it came at a cost. As a result, the flavor has been steadily bred out of most watermelons you find in the store. I’ve cut into way too many boring, flavorless watermelons this season. That’s why I was determined to make the drive to taste the original.

Thankfully, Jillian was on board with the purchase and the trip. She gets me, and my crazy ideas sometimes.

I wasn’t alone in this crazy idea. I may have driven 127 miles to grab this watermelon, but Debra Freeman and her boyfriend, Joshua Fitzwater, have me beat. For the second year in a row, they drove 367 miles from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to Sumter to pick up their Bradford watermelon.

Freeman says she likes watermelon, but she doesn’t love it. But what she does love, along with Fitzwater, is a good Southern food story.

Together, they run a local food magazine back home called Southern Grit Magazine. So it’s no surprise that they’d drive that far to pick up a watermelon. In fact, they spent last summer traveling up and down the east coast in search of sweet-tasting heirloom watermelons and the stories they tell.

Freeman tells me that we aren’t crazy for driving that far for a Bradford watermelon. She says we are just passionate. We both love a good story. And if a tasty watermelon comes along as part of the package, we’re all in.

After two and half hours, Jillian and I finally pulled into the Bradford Family Farm in Sumter. We walked up to the tent, gave them my last name, and just like that, a teenage boy scooped up one of the watermelons for us and placed it into the truck – all 33 pounds of it.

The next day, after letting it chill in the refrigerator, we cut into it. It was sweet – maybe not the sweetest I’d ever had – but it was good. It was better than 80% of the watermelons I’d purchased recently at the grocery store.

Was it worth the 254-mile round trip to pick it up? Of course it was. It wasn’t about the watermelon after all. It was about going on an adventure in these crazy COVID times, creating new memories, and even better, a new story to tell.

That’s the secret of it all. It’s never about the watermelon. It’s about the people we are sharing the watermelon with.

That’s what makes life so sweet – being able to share it with someone that appreciates you for your passions, while at the same time, tolerating you for your craziness too.

Ben Dungan has been writing about how life has changed since the COVID-19 outbreak. You can email him at [email protected] and read more from him at www.TheBenDungan.com.