Ode to the Mighty Watermelon

by Jeanine Adinaro on June 28, 2010

in Chinese Culture, General Health

It’s not just a fun, summer food anymore!

Standing majestically over all the other traditional Chinese herbs are those that do double duty as both herbs and foods. And emperor among this royal court reigns the benevolent watermelon. Traditionally used to combat summer heat and its effects- significant thirst, dark, scanty urine and dry heaves- it’s no wonder that entire towns have built reputations on growing these green skinned fruits of wonderfulness.

What prompts my love of the watermelon today in particular? As you may remember the Herbalogic team lives in beautiful Austin, Texas. And the rumors are true; summers here are just plain hot. This leaves us residents with two choices: cower inside for 3-5 months waiting for better weather (those of you to the north may be familiar with this strategy) or find ways to keep cool while enjoying our usual outdoor activities. Enter my love of the mighty watermelon.

During my herbal training, I once had an entire 45 minutes of lecture devoted to the watermelon and its two companion summer heat fighting foods, mung beans and lotus leaf. During the break, several of us students were comparing our own experiences with these foods. My friend, Cindy*, told me the following story.

Back before Cindy and her husband each spent 28 days on “vacation”, they used to throw wild pool parties at their home. These were the kind of parties that persisted even after vomit in the bushes, scorned men starting fights with other equally scorned men, even several visits from the cops, and only ended when the birds finally began their morning tribute. Basically, those sorts of parties that most of us, if lucky, only attend once in a lifetime (I myself have been privileged to attend 2 such parties, but that is a topic for an entirely different blog).

One party they rented a margarita machine.** In the afternoon before the party, the machine was delivered; oddly, by a crew from a lawn care company (my guess is there were a couple of family businesses whose ownership overlapped). Cindy was in the midst of making a lovely, elaborate watermelon boat when the delivery crew, exhausted from the heat, finished their work. There were a lot of scrap pieces of watermelon, and one of the lawn care/ delivery guys asked what she intended to do with it all. She had intended to throw it away. He asked if he and the crew could have it instead. Cindy agreed and offered a plastic bag for transport. Noticing the blender sitting on the counter nearby, the man asked if she wouldn’t mind just liquefying it all for the crew to drink. As she prepared these cool, refreshing cups of sweet, sweet, yumminess, the guy explained that he and his crew work outside all day, all times of the year. And in the summer, even if they drink a lot of water, it’s pretty difficult to avoid heat exhaustion. But if they can start the day by consuming some watermelon, they can drink water throughout the day and keep from getting sick.

My guess is that this lawn / delivery crew had never studied traditional Chinese herbs, and their use of watermelon was a function of experience, not applied traditional Chinese herbal therapy. And if I further had to guess what makes watermelon so useful in combating summer heat, there’s probably some perfect balance of electrolytes that the folks at Gatorade wish they could emulate and patent. It’s no surprise to me that the Chinese are not the only culture to stumble upon the life preserving properties of watermelon, but to my knowledge, they are the only culture to provide it a place in a systematized medical therapy tradition.

Three cheers for watermelon!

*Of course I’m not going to use her real name. I’m not going to sully her reputation as a healer for the sake of a good anecdote.
**For those of you not familiar, in order to make frozen margaritas in mass quantities, you need a special piece of equipment in order to get the alcohol to freeze up sufficiently. In Texas anyway, you can rent really big ones for parties.

Photo by La Grande Farmers’ Market

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