James Igani stands in the center of a semicircle of quizzical senior adults, armed with a chef's knife and half a watermelon. After a dozen or so well-placed strokes of the knife, he tilts the unwieldy fruit and its juicy red pulp simply slides out into a bowl, precut into cubes and ready to eat.
The seniors at a Collegedale assisted-living facility gasp and grin appreciatively at each other and applaud the trick. That astonishment is what has spurred an amateur video of Igani's melon-cutting method into an Internet viral sensation.
"The Easiest, Fastest Way to Cut a Watermelon" has gotten more than 1.7 million hits on YouTube since it was posted July 23. It was picked up by HuffingtonPost.com on July 31 and has been "shared" more than 10,000 times on Facebook. And its numbers grow daily.
Igani, 51, says he was unaware of his growing fame until his nephew in Australia called a week after the video was posted to tell his uncle he'd seen it; then he heard from a friend in Brazil.
"My neighbor said her mother in Connecticut sent her a video link, and when she watched it, she recognized me," Igani laughs.
And, in all his years of watermelon slicing, he has cut his finger only once.
Igani is a physical therapy assistant for Summit Physical Therapy who lives in the Highway 58 area. He immigrated to the United States from Iran when he was 16. He's a graduate of Chattanooga High School, got a biology degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and physical therapy certification from Chattanooga State Community College.
It was the wife of one of his patients who made and posted the YouTube video, he says. Amazed at how easily he cut the slippery, juicy melons, she thought it was how-to information that should be passed along.
While the average person may eat the equivalent of one watermelon's fruit in an entire summer, Igani says he eats one -- sometimes two -- watermelons a day. He is a proponent of eating only fresh fruits and vegetables for optimal wellness. To maintain what he calls his "melon addiction," he buys about three dozen watermelons twice a month at Linda's Produce in East Ridge.
His rapid-fire cutting style came out of necessity. "Because I eat a lot of watermelon, I had to come up with a quick way to eat it," he says.
His process begins by halving a watermelon length-wise. He cuts two or three long slits horizontally on each side of the half, then inserts the knife from the top, circling the circumference to separate flesh from rind. Next he cuts three to four stripes horizontally into the surface of the melon, followed by vertical cuts to create a checkerboard pattern. He slips a gallon zip-lock bag over the end of the melon, tilts it and the cubes slide out.
Igani is up and slicing and dicing melons by 4:30 a.m. each morning. He packs ziplock bags with several melon cubes to deliver to each physical therapy patient he will visit later that day for Summit -- all on his own dime.
Donna Alper, whose late mother was a patient of Igani's, says he brought her parents watermelon every time he came to see her mother.
"He got up early every morning and cut up watermelon, packed it with plastic forks and napkins, and brought them a bag," Alper says. "Mother wasn't a patient at the end before she passed away, but he still came by to see her almost every day."
Pat Howard, another patient of Igani's, says he took care of a problem at her home without her even asking and paid for it himself.
"My wheelchair ramp was at the point of falling and I did not have the money to repair it," Howard says. "He saw the condition it was in and called a carpenter to build a new one. He didn't tell me of his plans until the carpenter was due at my house because he knew I would protest. James paid for my new wheelchair ramp and would not accept any money."
Igani says he visits and makes watermelon deliveries to an average of 30 patients, past and present, each week. When watermelon season ends, he'll switch to honeydews, but adds that his slice-and-slide method doesn't work on those.
Several imitations of Igani's style have popped up online; many of the copycats checking to see if it really works. Viewer posts declare the method a success.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.