One if my earliest sensory memories from the lakefront is of salt – not from the saltwater, but from the watermelon. When I was a kid, a thing for the family to do on warm summer evenings was to take a ride along the shore. There was always a sense of adventure as we drove past the seawall, where the sights included groups of people dangling nets for crabs. I thought all crabs had blue tips – not knowing how prized the lake’s “Louisiana blues” were. While the crabbers hoped that some unsuspecting crustacean would fall for the raw chicken necks pinned in their net, an occasional blast of heat lightening in the distance added drama to the night. On the far side of our ocean was Mandeville, which always seemed vulnerable to the strobe lights in the sky.
Our side was much more passive. Along the winding way was a shelter house where watermelon was sold by the slice. Picnic tables provided an encampment. For us growing kids, a rite of passage was graduating from half-slices to full slices. I do not remember how we handled the seeds, but being kids I suspect many became projectiles shot through our lips into the night. Perhaps in some levee crevice an aged watermelon vine still spreads.
Most unusual, at least to me, about the act of watermelon eating was the practice of sprinkling salt on the slices – everybody did it. Salt on a watermelon was like powdered sugar on a beignet – an accepted norm. I never understood why.
In those pre-Internet days we had to accept abridged answers from adults, such as “Just because …” Now there are pages of discussion on such topics: The reason for salt we are told is that it makes the watermelon taste sweeter by drawing moisture from the melon, thus allowing more of the sweet taste.
(My own observation is that salt makes the watermelon taste saltier by providing more salt on the watermelon, but then again I am no scientist.)
These days, when we know more about hardened arteries and high blood pressure, watermelon has become more salt-free. (Think about it – if water quenches thirst, what is the purpose of putting something on it that cause more thirst?) Melons have also become more slice-free. Now they can be bought at the supermarket chopped in cubes and packed in plastic containers. Somehow that just doesn’t seem right at a lakefront picnic table.
Our lakeshore drive always ended alongside Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, where traffic would slow to watch the Zephyr roller coaster gradually climb to its highest point and then suddenly lunge downward at a speed seemingly faster than any human had ever travelled. We could hear the people on board scream, except when we were screaming, too.
Between the crabbers and the Zephyr riders and the salt on the melon, this was a lot to experience for one night – and the lightening gave warning that there might be more adventure to come.