A friend of mine recently told me about a time in college when she and her buds decided to throw an end-of-year party in the picnic area near their dorm. Most of them were still slightly underage, so openly bringing six-packs of beer was a recipe for trouble. But they were college kids, majoring in liberal arts and minoring in high jinks. There was no way The Man (or the notoriously rules-y RA who ran their dorm with an iron scrunchie) was going to keep them from their illegal imbibery, so one of them suggested they make a drunken watermelon.
Ah, yes, I thought: the mythical drunken watermelon, unicorn of tippling American youth. Oft hath its legend been whispered; it hath endured, I think, not because it's particularly effective, but because tippling youth love a DIY project that requires knives, sneakiness and wishful thinking. In fact, the latter is probably key for anyone pursuing a liberal arts degree.
The outline of this project is thus: You get a watermelon and a bottle of vodka (it's always vodka, for some reason), cut a bottle-mouth-sized plug out of the watermelon's rind, then jam the open bottle into the fruit. Since watermelon has a spongelike texture -- not unlike that firm green foam florists use to keep their arrangements in place -- the bottle's contents will be soaked up by the fruit. Once that's happened, you remove the bottle and replace the plug of rind, sealing the booze inside. Thus you've created a seemingly intact watermelon that's actually a portable Weapon of Mass Inebriation that can be toted to Phish concerts, church gatherings and the funerals of people you didn't really like, with no one ever realizing that the innocent, patriotic fruit you're slicing up and noshing on is juiced with Russian hooch. It's amazing Joseph McCarthy didn't drag one of these melons in front of his Senate subcommittee, if not to force it to testify, then to chug down its contents.
Let me say here and now: It was clearly not a STEM major who came up with the drunken watermelon. The process just doesn't work very well, for obvious reasons. Namely, while the flesh of the watermelon, that receptive vessel into which this bottle of vodka is supposed to eagerly flow, is rather spongelike, it is a sponge that's already full -- of watermelon. Unlike certain Metro riders, vodka won't rudely shoulder its way into space that's already occupied. A good watermelon is already bursting -- with water, to be specific, which makes up more than 90 percent of the fruit. The idea that a full bottle of vodka will flow evenly throughout a large, juicy, densely fleshed melon? Nah. You'll get what my friend and her gang got: a small segment of watermelon that's intensely alcoholic, a lot of regular watermelon, and a bunch of annoyed, ant-covered partygoers jabbing at the melon with sporks, trying to find the boozy part.
Many have tried to refine the drunken watermelon process. Some instructions suggest drilling several bottle-holes in the melon, allowing you to spread the bottle's contents through more of the fruit. Others give in and go liquid: If you slice open a melon to make a punch bowl (simply removing the slim lid of rind), you can then hollow it out with a spoon a bit then stick a hand-mixer into the cavity, frappé the interior flesh into a smoothie, then add booze. Some instructions imply that once you've done this, you can simply stick a tap into the base of the melon and get a free-flowing watermelon cocktail dispenser, but unless you blend the fruit thoroughly (more thoroughly than a hand mixer usually does), little remaining chunks of watermelon will probably clog the tap pretty quickly.
This technique also takes away part of the drunken watermelon's appeal. Watermelon juice and booze are delicious together, but they're not quite the thing sought by those questing to perfect the drunken watermelon. They are not watermelon itself: crisp, sweet and cold, its cells breaking under your teeth to release its juices, leaking its summery guts all over your clothes. Part of the joy of watermelon is that toothsome texture.
So I propose a new drunken watermelon, one that preserves that exquisite crispness and doesn't ignore the reality of fruit anatomy, one for people who aren't primarily using it to smuggle alcohol to underage drinkers.
The primary fix here is to open up the melon and use a melon-baller to scoop out a bunch of the fruit. You then infuse the melon balls in a boozy marinade for a few hours, where -- their water-retaining cells now leaking -- they will exchange some of their juice for the liquid they're sitting in. When it's ready to serve, you return the infused melon balls to the empty hull and pour the completed punch into it. If you have the fridge or freezer space, keep both the melon balls and the watermelon rind in the freezer for a few hours before you want to serve the punch; that way, when you move the whole thing outdoors for your picnic, the fruit and rind will keep the punch cold.
I've argued the merits of vodka in cocktails before, namely that it serves as a blank canvas for other flavors, so I understand the appeal of pairing it with watermelon, where it won't hide the fruit's flavor. But neither does it do much to enhance it. If you want something summery and sophisticated, try the Summer Watermelon Punch. You'll get sweet, cold melon balls that have picked up the botanicals of gin and the complex, complementary herbal flavor of green Chartreuse, swimming in a drink that echoes those flavors but adds the contrasting tartness of fresh lime. It's bright, sweet and fresh, and a great centerpiece when served in the cold hull.
The guests (and ants) at your picnic will speak of it for years.
• Carrie Allan is a Hyattsville, Maryland, writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.