Juice dribbled from their lips and seeds whizzed out of their mouths as senators, congressmen and Agriculture Department officials slobbered happily over watermelons on the east lawn of the Capitol yesterday afternoon.
Their purpose: to join leaders of the National Watermelon Association in declaring watermelons safe for democracy.
Sounding more like a TV pitchman than a legislator, Rep. Bill Cobey Jr. (R-N.C.) announced, "America, go out and do your thing and buy these great watermelons. I'm going to eat one to prove it's safe."
And he did.
The testimonial follows a national watermelon scare, sparked by the discovery of pesticide-tainted California-grown watermelons. In early July, the toxic contamination caused more than 281 illnesses, setting off a widespread melon malaise. Sales dropped as much as 75 percent in California and an average of 35 percent nationally. Since then, examinations have determined that the contamination was limited to California.
Those gathered yesterday wanted to let Americans know it is not a national security risk to gobble those 25-pound monster melons. (They contribute to a $400 million industry, in which Maryland and Delaware each have a significant stake.) Among those hailing watermelons were Secretary of Agriculture John Block; Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) and William Roth Jr. (R-Del.); and Reps. Kika de la Garza (D-Tex.) and Bill Emerson (R-Mo.).
Block spewed opinions as well as seeds during the watermelon fest. "There's always some risk that products will be used improperly, and obviously that's what occurred here. It's just a few individuals who used something they shouldn't use.
"I think it's very unfortunate," he continued, "because it's just two or three people and it's just affected the whole industry."
"I love watermelons," he added.
Helms made a quick appearance and posed for some photos with a state watermelon beauty queen. When Helms heard that the national watermelon queen, from Georgia, had a photo opportunity at the Capitol with the vice president, he decided the North Carolina queen should have her shot, too. "The walk was longer than the visit," said the North Carolina beauty queen, Lynn Shirley, one of nine watermelon queens present.
"I ain't seen one my height yet," said de la Garza, who, at 5-foot-7, didn't tower over any of the women.
The "highlight" of the "festival," which was attended by more media than spectators, was a seed spitting contest. Congressmen and other interested exhibitionists lined up, chewed a chunk of fruit, lifted their jaws, lurched forward and exhaled.
The winner: South Carolina watermelon queen Melissa Turner, 25 feet, 5 inches.
The competition left at least one official disappointed, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Wilmer Mizell, who propelled a seed about 18 feet. "If I'd had a chance to practice a little bit, I could've done better. I think I lost a little compression somewhere," he said.