Watermelon Agua Fresca

Watermelon agua fresca and Optics

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 Muddlesand 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.

Watermelon Agua Fresca prep

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.

Watermelon Agua Fresca

 

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)

Directions

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.

Options

  • 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.

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For the Love of Book Clubs

I have a confession: I’ve never been in a book club.

I’ve read hundreds of books, thanks to undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, a brief but successful career as an English professor, and a lifelong interest in the written word. I’ve sat in, and led, courses devoted to the discussion of books, but I’ve never been in a book club.

My professional and social orbits haven’t even included talk about book clubs, until recently. I’d briefly considered searching one out as a way to meet new people when we moved to Santa Fe nearly two decades ago, but I never got serious about the effort, for two reasons. The first was the double-edged fear that, as a former English professor, I’d be expected to lead the group and provide insightful comments or that everyone would be struck dumb in fear of what a former professor might say. (No worries there; I’ve forgotten almost everything I took pains to learn about literary theory.) The other reason was best articulated by Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

But such decisions are never forever. I now can imagine belonging to a book club, many years from now, when I’m retired and hanging out with other retirees. None of us has a professional persona to preserve. We’ve lived long enough to call BS on highly touted titles we find dull—or poorly edited. We take turns revising the fates of favorite characters. A couple of us share the backstory on the latest fiction we’re writing. There might be a bottle of wine or a cocktail shaker in the scene.

For now, though, I’m being selfish. I’m reading what I want when I want. I feel no guilt when I don’t finish a book. I feel no guilt for not reading “enough.”

Why Book Clubs?

I became interested in book clubs from a marketing angle when I wrote my first novel, Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles. But beyond that, I love that book clubs are thriving. I love that readers of all ages and backgrounds are gathering in person or virtually to discuss books and share their experiences. I love the potential book clubs hold for community-building.

From their name, you’d assume book clubs are about reading and discussing books. From movies, you’d gather that they’re about getting together with friends of a shared demographic over wine. From the popularity of Oprah’s and Reese’s book clubs, you’d suspect they’re about staying current with influencers. Turns out, book clubs are all that and more.

Large publishers host their own book clubs and offer deals to big-name clubs as a savvy marketing strategy. (That’s one reason it may seem that all the well-known book clubs are reading many of the same books in any given year.) But you can also find book clubs for niche demographics and for every genre under the sun. Some clubs don’t even require you to read the book. During the COVID era, it’s no surprise that virtual book clubs have grown in popularity.

Book clubs aren’t just for those with the disposable income to buy a dozen books a year. Libraries have made digital sign-outs possible. For example, Hoopla, an ebook service for libraries, has a Book Club Hub that’s accessible to anyone with a library card at a library that subscribes to Hoopla for ebook check-outs. (Optics will be available through Hoopla, though my non-Amazon ebook distributor says the service has long processing times.)

Data on the number of book clubs and members is hard to verify, especially as so many are local and without a digital presence. Whatever the reason for joining a book club, participation among “regular readers” in the U.S. between 2004 and 2015 rose from 33% to 57%, according to a white paper produced for librarians. The three-page report includes tips for creating successful book clubs. A chart showing the various ways book club members find out about books puts “Personal recommendations” in the top spot, so thanks in advance for any good words you share about Optics with fellow readers!

Book Club Questions

Whether a book is selected by a nationally known club helmed by a famous one-namer or by a self-governed local group, having a novel selected by a book club increases book sales and can expand the network of potential readers. That’s great, but getting book clubs to choose indie-published Optics is much harder, especially as large traditional publishers have substantially larger marketing and promotion budgets.

Even with those advantages, best-sellers and highly acclaimed titles can fall flat, as a friend who’s been in multiple book clubs recently explained. She described one meeting at which most participants offered only one-word answers to what she considered lame discussion questions.

I want to make it easy for book clubs to select Optics, so I wrote a set of Book Club Discussion Questions. Take a peek and download them if you plan to read Optics with a book club or a friend. I’ve written no “reading quiz” questions—the sort that require you to recall some obscure detail. Nor will you find any that ask you to comment on the “significance” of this scene or that character name, as one might expect  from a college English course. They’re simply prompts to help you articulate why you did, or didn’t, like particular aspects of the book.

If you use these questions in a book club—this year or any time in the future—send me a message via this website to let me know how they worked (and what you drank).

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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