A few years ago my sister found a recipe for watermelon salad that sounds almost unappetizing but is surprisingly refreshing. Its simplicity and charm make it a delightful edition to any summer party.
I’m no food blogger so I’ll put the recipe right at the top: To make it, you simply need to cube the meat of a watermelon and mix that with crumbled feta, finely chopped red onions and fresh mint. My sister takes the presentation a step further by scooping the watermelon with a cookie dough dropper so it comes out in perfectly round watermelon balls. It looks great, it really does. Although, if you don’t want to scoop them it’s perfectly fine to cube the fruit because it tastes wonderful no matter how it looks.
As soon as my sister debuted this creation I knew she had found a hit. It was clear this recipe would follow her for the rest of her life and likely become one of her specialities. Aunt Jillienne’s Watermelon Salad. We were still in our early 20’s then but I could already see it.
It’s probably sibling rivalry but you never want to admit something like this to your sister. There can only be so many signature dishes in one family and she had already claimed ownership over a popular Jell-O and yogurt dessert we serve. The two recipes I had campaigned to introduce — marshmallow covered yams and spicy pretzels — were both highly divisive. They had a loyal following but were better termed cult hits. The watermelon salad had instant classic written all over it.
It was apparent I was going to lose ground on another family favourite to my sister but I did see an unexplored opportunity: the international market. My sister and I live in different countries and I was sure the watermelon salad hadn’t made it to America yet. Maybe I could bring it there.
Los Angeles isn’t really known for its potlucks so I had to be patient waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. As a rule, I appreciate potlucks since my big life dream is to become a grandmother. One of the activities grandmothers typically excel at is potlucking. I’ll rarely say no to a chance to flex this skill. It’s good practice.
Through word of mouth I discovered that the Dodgervision employees, with whom I am not affiliated, hold a potluck at Dodger Stadium for every Dodger playoff game and on the Fourth of July. I networked my way onto the sign up sheet and prepared to debut my, oh sorry — my sister’s, watermelon salad.
The first time through was an unparalleled success. It was clear the potluck, which mostly consisted of fried chicken and store bought cupcakes, was greatly enhanced by the watermelon salad. People went wild for it. I brought two tin pans of it and they were both gone by the end of the night. Collecting my utensils I glanced smugly at the leftover dishes that had barely been touched. How embarrassing it must be to collect your uneaten potluck contribution, I thought.
After that I was a shoo-in for the potlucks. People who knew me understood I was the watermelon salad girl. Occasionally I would attempt to explain the recipe’s lineage but what was the point? My sister would want me to be happy, I reasoned, and this watermelon salad fame made me quite happy.
After several potlucks I decided the salad needed to be elevated to once a year status. Scarcity is the true pathway to becoming a legend. I started bringing homemade buffalo chicken wraps instead, telling myself I’d save watermelon salad for the Fourth of July only. I believe the potlucks were still enhanced by my wraps which, though not watermelon salad, were still better than the usual potluck fare. I was pleased to be, in my eyes, a top potluck contributor.
All was going well leading up to this year’s Fourth of July. To cement my status I started drumming up interest in my watermelon salad early. Briefly, I considered bringing two dishes to start claiming more territory. But in the end I decided the watermelon salad was fine enough as a standalone. It’s a classic.
The trouble started on July 3. I ordered my groceries online like usual but there were no delivery times available until the next morning. Of course, it was a risk waiting until the Fourth of July to get my ingredients but I tried to stay calm.
It wasn’t until late morning on July 4 when I opened my delivery to discover my mint had been replaced with basil. How anyone could consider basil a remotely good substitution for mint is beyond me. I quickly hopped online to order more mint but the store was sold out. No mint on the Fourth of July. I had no idea the herb was such a commodity, but I’m sure it makes for some sort of great Instagram photo somehow.
My options were slim. I didn’t have time to run to the store myself. I had been promising my watermelon salad for quite some time so of course I had to press on and find a solution.
I opted to blend some frozen emergency mint I had with lemon juice and yogurt. It seemed edible enough but when I poured it over the watermelon the plan fell apart. Instead of bright pink watermelon dotted with fresh mint leaves it looked took on the appearance of raw beef coated in a green-flecked sauce. Sprinkling it with feta and onions didn’t help.
Still hoping for the best I humbly offered my dish to the potluck organizers. They placed it beside a fruit salad, which would typically be decent placement but the problem with this fruit salad is that it had a lot of berries. My issue with fruit salads is they’re typically heavy on the melons while berries are merely a garnish. This fruit salad, I have to say, spared no expense when it came to berries. It was clear the bar had been raised on the potluck.
“Give it time and people will dig in,” I comforted myself. There’s no shame in being the dish people devour once all the top choices are gone. Each dish fulfills a purpose. I heaved a hefty serving of the concoction onto my plate to get the momentum going. But, when I came back to check on the salad an hour later it was still more than half full while the berried fruit salad was nearly gone.
This was a grim reality but I refused to believe what I was witnessing. I didn’t believe it until another hour passed and I went in to check again — still more than half full. It was true. My watermelon salad had officially flopped. I quietly fished my utensils from the remains. People clearly wouldn’t be needing the serving spoons any longer, would they?
The embarrassment lingered into the next day until slowly I decided I would make another, stronger, attempt when the playoffs potlucks rolled around.
I bought tacos for dinner at Dodgers Stadium that day. They were $13 for three appetizer sized tacos and not at all worth it if you’re asking for my opinion. Walking by the Dodgervision room with my head held high I thought I could detect the scent of roasting marshmallows.
Craziness, obviously. How could you roast marshmallows at Dodgers Stadium?
“You’re not doing the potluck today?” my friend asked as I sat down with my tacos.
“There isn’t one, not until playoffs.”
“It looks like there is one,” she said gently. “They were just making s’mores with a blow torch.”
I swiveled my head toward the Dodgervision door where a potluck goer emerged licking rib sauce off his fingers. The potluck was on! It was stronger than ever! No one had told me! It was obvious what had happened: I hadn’t made the cut.
Unsure what to do I carried on like it didn’t bother me. Like I didn’t need the calories. Like I was enjoying my overpriced tacos.
“I feel bad for you” she said, knowing how much I love potlucks.
That’s OK, really, it didn’t bother me. It’s not even my recipe. I make yams and spicy pretzels. They’re really great. They’d go so fast at a potluck that I wouldn’t even bring them. Probably couldn’t make a batch big enough. Oh the watermelon recipe?
That’s just my sister’s watermelon salad.