Diane Siskin: The Saga Of The Traveling Watermelon

Monday, July 26, 2010 - by Diane Siskin
Carl Cotton’s Produce Stand in Freeport, Fl.
Carl Cotton’s Produce Stand in Freeport, Fl.

In the era when you read books on pieces of electronic technology called Kindle or Apple iPads and news on online publications such as you are currently doing, you expect rapid updating to other aspects of daily life.

Some of you might already have experienced a new way of grocery shopping. Many supermarkets have already replaced your friendly checkout clerk with a new machine to “scan” your purchases. As you place your chosen items on this new conveyor belt, the internal computer reads bar codes on everything from produce to toilet paper. The machine totals your purchase, accepts credit cards or cash and even gives you change...if you deserve it! You still have to bag your own groceries.

Many people have now have cars with GPS systems (which doesn’t stand for Girls Preparatory School) to help them navigate everywhere, including to that supermarket with new scanning machines.

Telephone conversations can now be achieved without actually talking. You can text, twitter or e-mail right from a handheld cell device.

Purchasing fresh fruit and vegetables from farm and truck stands throughout the Southeast is one of the remaining old-fashioned small pleasures of life. On travels through several states during the past few weeks, I engaged in this rite of summer.

As I drove north from my home in the Panhandle of Florida, I hit my favorite stand shortly after entering Alabama where Florida Route 77 intersects with rural Alabama Routes 109 and 203 in Rehobeth.

Perry Smith greeted me with a smile and a gracious welcome even though I interrupted his daily workout. While he awaits customers, he sits in a chair and works out his arms with weights.

Asked to pick out his best produce and he does so happily. He suggested some really large and juicy peaches (they had been picked at Georgia farms he said).

The tomatoes were by far the largest and reddish I seen. When I have purchased tomatoes from Mr. Smith, they have contently sat on our kitchen counter for weeks. The Vidalia onions (also from Georgia) are always good.

Some weeks he has okra. In late summer he has corn, sweet potatoes, squash and zucchini. He displays jars of locally produced honey and usually has some red potatoes.

On this trip since I was heading to family in Atlanta, I trusted Perry to select his best seedless watermelon.

Today more and more restaurants, resorts and vacationers are seeking the freshest food at markets. Consumers are learning how to choose ripe fruit, good seafood and healthier beef.

Some of those same people are attending cooking schools and scouring cookbooks to obtain recipes which incorporate local flavors to create delicious fare.

A great place to start that quest is at the farm or fresh fruit stand. So with my car laden with peaches, tomatoes and that “special watermelon,” I continued my journey. I didn’t go far. My next stop, a few miles up the road in Dothan, Al., was with an organic blueberry grower who brings her precious bounty to customers in a pre-arranged meeting points.

Micci Dix’s blueberries, from Dix’s Camelot Farms, are excellent, but were in small supply this summer because of climate issues. Her pickings ended in mid-July rather than early August.

Still, I scored a few delicious berries. Mrs. Dix’s customers purchase the fresh berries in gallon bags and generally freeze some for later use or split among families.

With my coolers filled, I made my first stop in Atlanta for several days. Most of the fruit was consumed there, but a few items, including some peaches, continued on when I left for Dahlonega and “Gold Country" in Northern Georgia a few days later.

After my return to Atlanta, I picked up that “special seedless watermelon,” which hadn’t been cut, and it went with me as I headed east from Atlanta, stopping for a night in Greensboro, Ga., before continuing on to South and North Carolina.

The traveling watermelon even made it onto the Ferry from Southport, N.C. to Bald Head Island, N.C. It wasn’t until we reached the island that the watermelon was actually cut and first consumed. Nothing tasted better in the humid heat.

More than half a watermelon remained as we prepared to catch the ferry after our stay was completed. Too good to waste, some of it was cut into chunks and placed into plastic containers for the return journey back to Greene County in Georgia.

But wait, we still had another large piece of watermelon remaining! It was packed and traveled back to Atlanta, where it was finally finished. My return to Florida necessitated more stops to, once again, fill the coolers.

A return visit was made to Perry Smith in Rehobeth, where I was informed he was out of the seedless variety of watermelon which had accompanied me on my trip. “I have a good large seeded watermelon," he said. Trusting his choice, I filled the cooler with peaches, tomatoes and the new watermelon and headed south.

I found Ed Brown selling mangos from the back of his trunk on Route 77 in Chipley, Fl. “They were just picked in Plantation, South Florida and driven up here by my brother," said Mr. Brown, who sells from various spots in Northwest Florida. “Later on, I will be selling sweet potatoes," he said.

He picked a mango which could sit around on my kitchen counter, for awhile, until ready for use.

As I neared home in Freeport, Fl., I stopped at Carl Cotton’s Produce stand. As I picked out some garlic cloves, avocados and even a special tub of creamed honey, I noticed a sign on the counter that stated that the stand would be shut down for good on July 31.

“I retired once before," said Mr. Cotton, wiping his brow with a cloth, “and came back again. But I am too old and too hot to do it anymore."

With no one to take over the stand, this summer outpost may go the way of grocery store clerks and fresh off the farm watermelons.

Ed Brown sells mangos from his truck in Chipley, Fl.
Ed Brown sells mangos from his truck in Chipley, Fl.

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