Ailing and isolating for the first weeks of the new year left my kitchen empty, so I decided to rejoin polite society in the aisles of Trader Joe’s. This was a high-stakes grocery run from the start. With my lofty new year’s resolutions freed from the constraints of fever and fatigue, I had an improved self to show off, one who tries new things. Watermelon jerky, blushing and flirty above the canned goods, was a perfect miniature of the grand risks and adventures that would color my life in 2022. I didn’t speculate on flavor, only symbol. I assume the same can be said of those responsible for this product.
Trader Joe’s Organic Watermelon Jerky comes in a bag of red, white, and green stripes; the unmistakable flag of the watermelon. It is not a snack that lies. I would never accuse you of deceit, you of the Hawaiian shirts and the notoriously protracted small talk. I would only accuse you of drying watermelon, because that is what you did, and now we’re both going to hell—you for making it, and me for eating it.
Dried fruit is an easy enough concept to wrap your head and mouth around, but something goes south when the fruit is 92 percent water when it’s fresh. So let’s not call it dried watermelon, but corrupted watermelon. As in, I’m trying to work corrupted watermelon out of my teeth with my tongue, but only dental floss can fix this mess. The flavor wasn’t so much of watermelon as of drought; blistering hallucinations of a future without fresh water in the key of Mad Max: Fury Road.
As if to optimize the sadomasochistic vibes of this product, it comes with the seeds still in. In fact, it must have been made from watermelons that were genetically engineered to have more seeds than fruit. To the side of the nutrition label, a message should be delivered in lilting cursive: “You’ll grow a dried watermelon tree in your stomach and you’ll like it.” Take a bite of these sickly sweet paint chips and embrace nihilism. Yes, Nietzsche, God is dead. In his place, the anarchic whims of a Trader Joe’s test kitchen.
My compliments to the Trader Joe’s executives shooting up cookie butter and inventing such delicacies as pancake bread and dark-chocolate-covered honey grahams. My pantry is a shrine to your genius. But you’re not unimpeachable with your stylized Willy Wonka daring. I rely on you to churn out the equivalents of Wonka bars and everlasting gobstoppers, but now and again you fumble and stack your shelves with something more redolent of poisonous chewing gum. Back to the test kitchen with watermelon jerky, or better yet, scrap it entirely! COVID spared my taste buds, but this snack did me no such favor.
No need to outwit food that shows up delicious. Watermelon is good because of water; it’s right there in its name. The impulse to complicate is post-WWII hubris. It is microwave ovens and pesticides and astronaut ice cream. Please leave watermelon out of it. Manipulate the hell out of chocolate and sea salt, and gnocchi and squash, but for the love of God, know what to leave alone.
In 2022, I resolve to be more discerning about what new things are worth trying. Trader Joe’s, I can only hope you’ll do the same.