As we say goodbye to summer, we can prolong at least one seasonal pleasure by enjoying a sip of watermelon agua fresca. This bright rosy beverage plays a special role in Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles—and not just because I enjoy it!
Setting the Scene by Setting the Table
Writers have a full pantry of ways to establish a fictional scene. They can define a location, season, tone, and a character’s mood by dramatizing or describing everything from the physical surroundings and weather to the character’s clothing, actions, and speech. One element that can evoke several specifics at once is food.
We wouldn’t expect most characters to sip a hot toddy poolside in ninety-degree sunshine, for example. But if I introduce you to a character who is seated at a linen-covered table with fine china and a crystal wine glass in front of him and a platter of turkey just beyond his reach, you might picture a Thanksgiving table ringed with several other people. I’ve set the scene—the time of year and occasion—by setting the table. By showing how this character interacts with the table that’s been set, I can suggest even more. If the man you’ve just met is described as “shoveling” turkey, stuffing, and green beans into his mouth faster than he can chew and swallow, you might wonder if he’s been starving. Perhaps he’s homeless. Or perhaps it’s Uncle Norbert, whose lack of manners is legendary.
Setting the Scene in New Mexico
If you’ve read Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles, you know that food and beverages play an important role in several scenes. It’s not just that midlife women often give careful thought (or anguished stressing) to what they eat. The food and drink shared also help readers see how the story is both rooted in New Mexico and universal. It’s a way the characters demonstrate affection for others and how they express creativity. Some of the dishes mentioned are those traditionally associated with this special state; others you might find in any North American city. One—watermelon agua fresca—even has a thematic connection.
To help you set a table inspired by Optics—perhaps for a book club gathering—I’ll be posting a few recipes over the coming months. In some cases I’ll simply provide links to others’ recipes, but for this first one, you’re getting my version of watermelon agua fresca (“fresh water”).
Watermelon Agua Fresca
This summery drink is a nonalcoholic refresher that you’ll find in parts of the U.S. Southwest as well as south of the border. Though watermelons are most popular in summer, you often can find them year-round, thanks to shipments from Mexico.
Making this agua fresca requires few ingredients and tools. You can even muddle through (ahem) without a blender by crushing the watermelon cubes with a potato masher or fork.
Though the basic watermelon agua fresca recipe is simple, you can dress it up with garnishes, turn it into an adult cocktail with a splash of liquor, or dilute it with plain or sparkling water to create a homemade flavored water that’s far cheaper and tastier than the kind you’d buy in plastic bottles.
And yes, the color of watermelon agua fresca resembles the cover of Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles!
You’ll find the recipe below. You can also download and print a pdf of the watermelon agua fresca recipe.
Watermelon Agua Fresca
A recipe from Gail Reitenbach inspired by
Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles
Traditionally, agua fresca (“fresh water”) includes sugar or a simple syrup, but watermelon is already super sweet and needs, in my opinion, only a counterbalance of lime. If you have a serious sweet tooth, feel free to add a bit of sugar. (I find agave and honey adulterate the melon flavor too much.)
Agua fresca comes in more- and less-diluted versions. If you’re watching calories, dilute with more ice or water.
I never measure the proportions of melon, lime, and ice when I make this, but I did test these proportions. Start here and adjust to taste.
Ingredients for 1 to 3 servings (makes about 1.5 cups)
1.5 cups of cold, seedless watermelon cubes
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lime juice*
1/2 cup of ice cubes
1 teaspoon sugar (if you must)
Puree all ingredients in a blender. Taste. Add lime juice or sweetener. Consume immediately or refrigerate, covered, for no more than one day. Stir before serving, and add ice as desired.
- Garnish with a lime slice and/or mint sprig. You can also add a few mint leaves (no stems) to the blender ingredients if you love mint.
- Stir in ½ to 1 tablespoon of chia seeds (preferably, previously powdered in a dry blender) for a healthy (if sugar-free) afternoon pick-me-up.
- Pour ½ cup undiluted agua fresca from recipe above into a glass and top with sparkling or still water and ice.
- Pour ½ cup undiluted agua fresca from recipe above into a glass and add 1 ounce tequila (I’m partial to añejo) and ice.
* Limes are the most difficult citrus fruit to juice. If you don’t have a heavy-duty manual lime squeezer, just use your hands. First, roll the lime on the countertop for a few seconds, applying heavy pressure. Then slice the lime in half and use your fingers and palm to squeeze the juice into a container or directly into the blender. Look for limes with bright, green skin that are heavy for their size. There’s nothing sadder than a dry lime.