In the waste not, want not category of Southern delicacies, you’ll find the pickled watermelon rind. Not content to throw away any part of what Mark Twain declared a “king by grace of God over all the fruits of the earth”, thrifty housewives and maids found a way to make the hard, inedible rind not just edible, but practically a dessert. It’s a tradition that literally spans the centuries.
Done right, a pickled watermelon rind is nothing like a pickled cucumber. Sure, there are the requisite sour and vinegary notes. But it’s also really sweet and has a beguilingly bitter aftertaste. There’s really nothing else like it in the world.
The best way to describe it is to imagine a squishy greenish-orange cube of strangely bitter jello drenched in that sweet and sour sauce you get at that grungy Chinese takeout place. Which maybe doesn’t sound appetizing, but trust me, it is. Oh, it is.
I bought my first jar of pickled watermelon rinds from Historic Beach Station, a little ice cream parlor south of Richmond named after a town wiped from the map many decades ago: Beach. A small railroad town, Beach’s fate was probably sealed when the government got the name wrong. The town had turned in the name Beech, after a type of tree that was commonly found in the area, but instead received a moniker more befitting a sunny coastal resort. It was bad omen.
When the Tidewater & Western line that passed through town shut down in 1917, it was an even worse omen.
Today, what remains of Beach is recognized as a national historic district. That’s an impressive designation, to be sure. The reality, however, consists of two renovated houses and a backyard collection of railroad shanties and other buildings that resemble dilapidated chicken coops.
Still, Historic Beach Station serves Hershey ice cream and has pickled watermelon rinds, and so the soul of Beach burns on. The nice lady behind the counter – whose name I can’t recall – gave me a tour.
“So here’s the dining room,” she says, motioning to the sturdy wood table in the center of the room. Her brown hair is a ponytail, and she’s wearing an apron. The silence is vaguely uncomfortable, as if I’m intruding in someone’s home. “This is the original tin paneling on the walls and ceiling.”
She takes me out into the hallway and points at a cabinet. The well-trod floorboards creak gently under each step we take. “There’s some cool stuff in there you can check out.”
Including Confederate currency. I consider making a joke, asking if the store’s iPad accepts Condederate money. But then I figure I’m not that funny and leave with my jar of pickled watermelon rinds – and reputation – firmly in hand.