Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I was recently back down on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, standing in front of the modest house that my grandfather Morton had built and where my mom and aunt grew up. Behind the house, the headwaters of the Chester River gently flow and all around the tiny town are endless acres of farmland. My mom always spoke of growing up in this backwater, of slow and boring days dotted by the pleasures of eating sun-warmed tomatoes off the vine and grabbing handfuls of horse feed right out of the trough for a snack, and of the rampant discrimination that made her childhood difficult. While times have changed, some things persist—it only took about twenty minutes of my being there before I was told some folks still think “Morton’s treasure” is buried under the house’s floorboards, a Shylock-ian trope of squirreled-away Jewish wealth that is contrary to the truth, which is that my grandfather died deeply in debt more than fifty years ago.

I, meanwhile, grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an environment that couldn’t have been more different. But in addition to the stories and memories my mom would tell, she also shared more tangible elements of her rural Southern past with me. One was watermelon rind pickles, which she’d whip up most years from her own taste memory. It was a summertime treat that gave me the taste of a childhood I never actually had.

“Pickle” only half gets at the idea. It’d be equally accurate to describe the rind as “candied,” as it’s boiled in a brine that’s as syrupy as it is tart, loaded with cider vinegar and sugar, and fragrant notes of warm spices like cinnamon and clove. Watermelon rind is so often just thrown away, but it makes up a significant portion of the fruit: One 13-pound melon can yield nearly half its weight as trimmed rind, a feast that too often ends up in the garbage. For those who don’t know its flavor, the rind, once trimmed of the sweet red watermelon flesh, is mild and crisp, with a fresh and clean aroma that’s as close to its cousin the cucumber as it is to watermelon itself.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The frugality underlying a pickle made from watermelon rind deserves attention, as it probably connects to the pickle’s origins. The earliest recipe for watermelon rind pickles I can find on a search of Google Books is in the 1881 cookbook What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, written by a Black woman named Abbey Fisher after moving from the South to San Francisco. Considering that watermelon is a fruit native to Africa, that enslaved people of African origins had a strong motivation to come up with techniques for making use of otherwise discarded scraps like the rind, and that it seems to be most well known in the Southern States, this is a recipe that is likely one of the countless Black contributions to American cuisine.

Methods for making watermelon rind pickles vary. In Abbey Fisher’s version, the rind is first preserved in salt for at least a week, but potentially for months on end, before it’s desalted, boiled in vinegar and then in a spiced syrup, before being put up in jars. Other versions have you blanch the rind first in water, then cook it further in the vinegar syrup, and yet more call for ingredients like alum (now often not recommended for health reasons), which helps create an even more crisp final texture.

The method I use is even simpler, and I find it works as well as the others I’ve tried—I simply whip up the syrupy brine, then add the rind, and boil it until tender and partially translucent, which takes about 40 minutes or so. The result is pretty close to what I remember my mom making, despite not having any official family recipe. Be sure when preparing the rind to remove as much of the sweet red watermelon flesh as possible—it doesn’t take on an appealing texture once pickled—and also to trim off the outer green skin, which is too firm.

I did not develop this recipe with longterm canning in mind, which would have required me to pay much closer attention to safety parameters during development like the pickle’s final acidity to ensure a food-safe product. Instead, this pickle will safely keep in the fridge for at least a month, if not longer (if its texture becomes unappealing or you see any signs of mold or discoloration, that’d be the sign to throw it out).

As for what to do with the pickle, let your imagination guide you. It’s an excellent condiment to be served alongside Southern and Soul Food meals, it can be chopped up and spread on a sandwich or even stirred into mayo to make a watermelon rind relish or tartar-style sauce, served as part of a holiday meal like Thanksgiving. It can always just be snacked on, preferably under a shady tree on a day so hot you can smell the humidity.

In a 3-quart saucepan, combine cider vinegar, sugar, candied ginger, salt, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon stick, and lemon rind. Set over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, and cook for 15 minutes.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add watermelon rind, return to a boil, and cook until rind looks slightly translucent, about 40 minutes.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Transfer pickled rind and spices to mason jars (of any size you prefer), packing to fill well, then pour brine on top to fully cover rind. Seal jars, let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. Watermelon rind pickles can be kept refrigerated for up to 1 month.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Notes

A large 13-pound (6kg) watermelon will yield roughly 4 to 5 pounds (1.8–2.3kg) of fully trimmed rind. Larger or smaller watermelons and watermelon varieties with a thinner or thicker rind will yield less or more. This recipe is scaled to 2 pounds (907g) of fully trimmed rind, but can be halved or doubled as need.

To trim watermelon rind, carefully cut off almost all but the faintest traces of the red flesh (it does not maintain a pleasant texture once pickled). Then cut off the dark outer skin. The remaining white rind with a green-to-pinkish tinge in spots is now ready for pickling.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The pickled watermelon rind can be refrigerated in its brine for at least one month; signs it’s no longer good include loss in quality of the pickle’s texture, evidence of mold, or any cloudiness, discoloration, or off aromas.

This recipe is not formulated for food-safe canning.

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