Welcome, foolish mortals, to the home of cadaverous casseroles, exsanguinous eats, and snack-related sagas so strange and frightening they may well transport you to a realm unknown. Welcome, readers, to A Dark and Stormy Bite, a monthly column that dives deep into a teeth-chattering culinary dimension of utterly ghoulish proportions. Basically, if it involves food and goes bump in the night, we’ll cover it here. Do you have a favorite haunted restaurant or cursed recipe? Email firstname.lastname@example.org—and beware.
Gather ’round, ye sniveling children, for I have a particularly summery tale to tell. Glimpse my horrible countenance, awash in the light of my knockoff Weber grill, and listen carefully as my putrid yellow fingernails clickety-clack in anticipation. I really need a makeover.
My jacked-up face aside, heed my chilling tale: A young boy eats a delicious watermelon snack, slurping down the watermelon seeds with abandon. A few days later, the boy experiences unimaginable stomach pains and keels over in the hospital. His surgeon performs an autopsy, and what does the surgeon find? A genuine watermelon growing in the boy’s stomach. According to the story, the seeds germinated in the boy’s stomach lining and caused his truly ghastly death.
Of course, this is all a mere legend, presumably meant to spook summer campers into eating more daintily. Watermelon seeds can’t “plant” themselves in the human body—and even if they could, your stomach acid creates a pretty inhospitable environment for seedlings. Still, the lore lives on in campfire tales and even an episode of Rugrats. And while the myth has been soundly busted, macabre minds want to know: where did the legend come from, and is it based in real-life horror?
In a quest to dig up the roots of this frighteningly fruity fable, I turned to folklore. A cursory search revealed a few instances of melon-centric myth: for example, the Vietnamese tale of a so-called “watermelon prince,” a boy adopted into royalty and exiled as an adult due to erroneous claims of treachery. Once exiled, the hero learns to grow unfamiliar seeds—watermelon seeds, of course. Eventually, the watermelon prince sends a message to his adoptive father, the king, via a floating watermelon. The king is moved, the family reunites, and the hero inherits the crown thanks to his watermelon savvy.
This is a lovely story, but one that made me gnash my teeth and shriek, “Not scary enough!” In search of greater creepy-crawlies, I explored a Balkan folk legend involving—wait for it—vampire melons. The folktale lives deep, deep in the internet; the only legitimate mention I could find is in a journal called the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, courtesy of Serbian ethnologist Tatomir Vukanović. Vukanović wrote:
The belief in vampires of plant origin occurs among Gs. [Gypsies] who belong to the Mosl. faith in KM [Kosovo-Metohija]. According to them there are only two plants which are regarded as likely to turn into vampires: pumpkins of every kind and water-melons. And the change takes place when they are ‘fighting one another.’
Vukanović continued, explaining that vampire fruits can be identified by a telltale “brrrl, brrrl, brrrl!” sound, as well as ferocious shaking. He wrote:
These pumpkins and melons go round the houses, stables, and rooms at night, all by themselves, and do harm to people. But it is thought that they cannot do great damage to folk, so people are not very afraid of this kind of vampire.
Okay, well, if people aren’t afraid, that’s all good.
In my quest for greater clarity, I stumbled on an excellent Atlantic article, penned by William R. Black, about the origins of the racist associations of watermelon with Black and brown consumers. The author writes that watermelon has long been negatively associated with immigrants, people of color, and the working class:
“In the early modern European imagination, the typical watermelon-eater was an Italian or Arab peasant. The watermelon, noted a British officer stationed in Egypt in 1801, was “a poor Arab’s feast,” a meager substitute for a proper meal. In the port city of Rosetta he saw the locals eating watermelons “ravenously … as if afraid the passer-by was going to snatch them away,” and watermelon rinds littered the streets.”
The racist stereotype associating Black Americans with watermelon reportedly developed after the Civil War, serving what the Atlantic article calls “a specific political purpose.” After enslaved people won their emancipation, some free Black people prospered by growing and selling watermelons. Southern whites then made the fruit a negative symbol, which could explain the rudimentary origins of the deadly watermelon seed legend. This is, however, pure speculation on my part, as I wasn’t able to trace the exact historic origins of the watermelon seed story. As a last resort, I turned to... the medical community.
As I mentioned earlier, the human stomach isn’t a very hospitable home for a little watermelon seedling. To break down food, the stomach secretes enzymes and hydrochloric acids. This also helps kill any treacherous microbes that might’ve trickled in with lunch. Put plainly, nothing’s gonna grow in there—usually.
In my research, I found exactly two cases of medical anomalies that involved flora growing inside the human body. First was the 2009 case of a 28-year old Russian man hospitalized for chest pain. Doctors found a two-inch fir tree growing in his lung. They concluded that he had inhaled a seed, which sprouted. At the time, a spokeswoman for the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, told The Guardian, “A seed might be able to germinate in the damp, dark conditions of a lung, but it’s still bizarre.” The other case occurred in Massachusetts in 2010 when a 75-year-old man was treated after a pea plant grew in his lung, allegedly after he swallowed a pea seed in his food.
Here’s the big difference: in both cases, the plants grew in the lungs, not the stomach. Per this Health article, the lungs do contain safeguards to prevent harmful inhalation, but they also contain lots of tidy little spaces perfect for germination. The stomach isn’t quite so hospitable; and anyway, the chances of something as large as a watermelon seed making it past those lung safeguards are incredibly slim.
So, who devised the gruesome watermelon seed legend? I still don’t know. It could be the result of bastardized folklore; it could have stemmed from racism; it could even have origins in some undocumented medical anomaly, like the ones listed above. Regardless, rest assured that you can engage in a summertime seed-spittin’ contest with total peace of mind. But if you inhale a few too many seeds and start to feel a tickle in your lung, don’t say I didn’t warn you.