The Steakhouse Preparation That Transformed Watermelon

Today, watermelons are used by vegan and plant-based curious chefs and home cooks as a cruelty-free alternative for steak, ahi tuna, sushi, and more. It's an unexpected, yet genius, substitute: the fruit absorbs flavors well and, when cooked, can be transformed from watery and sweet to chewy and savory (via Live Eat Learn). The texture, taste, and pink-to-red color is able to mimic meat impressively, but you have to wonder: where on Earth did the innovative, and admittedly strange, trend begin?

Like many star stories, it appears the watermelon meat-alternative trend started in New York City — the East Village to be specific. Its originator (the sibling-owned restaurant Duck's Eatery, per EV Grieve) opened with a pretty meat-heavy menu. Owners Julie and William Horowitz wanted to offer customers more vegan and vegetarian options, according to an interview William gave Insider, so the Duck's Eatery team began to experiment. In time, the restaurant became famous for its one-off vegan menu items: from cantaloupe burgers to the infamous smoked watermelon (via Today).

Watermelon ... ham?

William Horowitz told Eater that, "Of all the places in New York, we might have the most one-hit wonder dishes." One of those hits was, of course, the viral watermelon ham — an innovation ahead of its time. Their approach to preparing plant-based foods using the same cooking methods as meat is a technique commonly practiced by vegan butchers today (via USA Today). As William explained it to Insider back in 2018, "We simply do the same thing we've been doing for thousands of years to meats, but we do it to a melon."

"The same thing" meant that, just like with meat, the team at Duck's spent four to six days brining and smoking the watermelon. The finished product resembled a rare cooked steak, with a caramelized exterior that coated the fruit with a skin-like crust. When food sites started sharing videos of its scored slices, the ham collected nearly 100 million views and sent foodies into a frenzy, selling out weeks in advance (via Eater). In the Insider video, Horowitz described the creation as "Smokey, savory, salty, hot and juicy, but still a watermelon — that's the beauty of it."

While you can no longer visit Duck's Eatery to try one for yourself (the restaurant shut down along with many others in the neighborhood during the pandemic) you can think of it fondly any time you order a watermelon meat-alternative going forward.