Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning culinary historian, cookbook author and journalist who specializes in the food and foodways of the African diaspora. With this column, "My Culinary Compass," she is taking people all over the world — via their taste buds — with recipes inspired by her extensive travels.
Compass points: 41.45 degrees north, 70.56 degrees west. Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.
It’s high summer and my two favorite seasonal things to eat are ripe, ready and available at the markets: tomatoes and watermelons. I have always loved tomatoes and crave the summer-ripe ones that drip with juice and have a flavor that cannot be duplicated. I overplant them in my Oak Bluffs garden and inevitably end up with bumper crops that I then have to give away, transform into chutney for the winter and eat, eat, eat!
I find it hard to imagine that, when the New World tomatoes first made their way to Europe, they were thought to be poisonous because botanists recognized that they are members of the nightshade family and therefore a relative of the poison, belladonna. In fact, they were not eaten in Italy until the late 17th century and initially grown as ornamental plants.
They decorated gardens in some parts of the colonial United States as well and perhaps arrived in the Carolinas via the Caribbean. Thomas Jefferson is known to have eaten them in Paris and sent seeds back to Monticello. Their popularity certainly grew over the centuries, and now, it is impossible to think of summertime without the ripe red, yellow or deep burgundy globes featuring prominently on the warm weather table. I eat them in salads or smooshed into mayonnaise-slathered white bread as sandwiches, as gazpacho or in my new favorite combination with my other favorite summer fruit: watermelon.
I am a relative newcomer to watermelon; for decades, I would ignore it, finding it cottony and lacking in taste. Then, I had a truly ripe sweet one from the vendor who used to park his car across the street from my home in Brooklyn, open his trunk and put out his sign that said, “Watermelon, sweet like your woman!” One day, he’d forgotten his knife and I loaned him one. He, in turn, offered some of his watermelon. I tasted it. The cottony texture I’d abhorred was gone — instead, it was sweet, slightly grainy and wonderfully cooling. My benefactor gifted me with delicious slices of watermelon that entire summer and, after that, it was on.
I was all the more pleased when I learned that watermelon originated on the African continent in southern Africa with the first watermelon harvest recorded in Ancient Egypt almost 5,000 years ago; it was so popular there that watermelon seeds were found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. The melon was introduced to Spain by the Moors, and Spaniards and enslaved Africans introduced it to the New World, where it was recorded growing Florida in the 16th century and in Massachusetts in the early 17th century.
Watermelon was especially prized in areas where the water supply was of uncertain purity or nonexistent as the plant is 92% liquid and could quench thirst. This certainly meant survival for enslaved folk working in the hot sun. However, an often life-saving love of watermelon has been a double-edged sword for African Americans; some of the most virulently negative images of the late 19th and early 20th century involve a racist stereotyping of an African American love of the fruit. Much of that has now mercifully passed. Now, for me, no summer is complete without a watermelon gorge and I have discovered a way to combine my two roseate summer loves: a tomato and watermelon salad.
Certainly, there is the classic watermelon and tomato salad that features feta cheese and a dressing more suited to the tomato than the watermelon. My salad mixes yellow tomatoes with reddish-pink watermelon, seasons them with roasted garlic cloves and dresses them in a vinaigrette made from equal parts white balsamic vinegar and sesame oil seasoned with ginger and honey. To me, it’s pure summer bliss.