When they write the history of the 1990's, two men named O.J. deserve prominence.
One, Orenthal "O.J." Simpson, for giving us so many months of diversion and instruction in the intricacies of the legal system. The second, Orie "O.J." Eigsti, for his pioneering diligence in bringing seedless watermelon to the American table.
Seedless watermelon, which in my opinion ranks with sliced bread in the pantheon of cliche worthy edibles, has gone in the last 10 years from a novelty item to the favored variety of watermelon in many parts of the country, including the Chicago area.
A spokeswoman for Dominick's Finer Foods said 70 percent of the chain's watermelon sales are now seedless, up from 20 percent just seven years ago. Jewel Foods reports that seedless now outsells seeded watermelons whenever the prices are equal, which happens periodically when market pressures eliminate the 10 to 25 percent premium customers usually pay for seedless.
This development may not pique your curiosity, but it did mine. So here, for relating at Labor Day cookouts as you wipe pink slobber from your chin, is the story:
Humans cultivated watermelons and suffered with their slick, indigestible seeds for 5,000 years until the mid 1940's. Then, a Japanese scientist, experimenting with a process pioneered by Eigsti, discovered he could use a chemical derived from an autumn crocus plant to double the chromosomes in a normal watermelon. He then crossbred the result with a normal plant and got a sterile (seedless) hybrid.
The idea never really went anywhere in Asia still hasn't but Eigsti, a plant geneticist from Goshen, Ind., who taught a total of 25 years at Chicago State and Northwestern Universities during his career, began pursuing it in earnest in 1948.
He co-founded the American Seedless Watermelon Corp. in 1954 to promote the idea but met with almost no success. Farmers resisted the extra effort and expense, Eigsti said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture actively discouraged him and even consumers were wary. At one particularly low point in the 1960's and early 1970's, only one family farm in central Illinois was producing and selling seedless melons, Eigsti said.
"That was our starvation period," noted Agnes Eigsti, his wife.
As late as 1985, seedless had a bare 1 percent toehold on the watermelon market, and when Eigsti went to the top five seed companies in the country, hat in hand, they told him the product had no future, he said.
Two years later, the persistent Eigsti, now 91, entered into a partnership with Sun World International, a multifaceted agribusiness firm. That partnership, called American Sunmelon, put marketing muscle behind seedless watermelons with the idea that they'd be the next seedless grapes once a curiosity, now a staple that claims about 90 percent of the domestic table grape market.
"They're slightly crunchier and slightly sweeter than seeded melons," said David Margulis, marketing vice president for Sun World. "But we had to overcome a lot of stubbornness."
Lucky for them, watermelon seeds are an inelegant pain. They render a tasty fruit messy and problematic for indoor dining and are good only for spitting contests and, of course, growing more watermelons.
Spitters and sentimentalists need not worry that seeded melons will soon disappear. The Facts of Life (watermelon version) dictate that approximately onethird of a seedless crop still has to consist of fertile, seedy melons. Efforts to pollinate seedless plants artificially have so far failed, according to Tom Williams, the watermelon breeder for Novartis AG.
The agricultural arm of Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, last fall purchased American Sunmelon and has even higher hopes for the seedless market, Williams said.
Seedless melons now make up roughly a third of the overall domestic watermelon market, according to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, with noticeable regional differences. Southerners, for instance, have been slow to accept these newfangled melons, while West Coast and Northeastern residents have made them their watermelon of choice.
Eigsti, the other O.J., retired only last year and lives part time in Goshen, which is roughly 100 miles east of Chicago, and part time in Green Valley, Ariz. He's unabashedly thrilled to have lived long enough to see his seedless dreams come true.
"I was just in a market down in Arizona and saw 'em going head to head, same price, against regular melons and winning," he said. "After all these years, it feels pretty good."