I think about food a lot. In part because I seem to be incessantly hungry—the result, no doubt, of having to greatly curb my caloric intake now that I’ve reached what the French so delicately call un certain âge. But also because I’m pretty much obsessed with food, even when not hungry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun discussing and planning a future meal before I’ve even finished the one still on the table. Doesn’t everyone do this?
Because, truly, let’s face it: Eating is the most important—and, I would argue, the most satisfying—human activity there is. So I think about the subject quite a bit, which is why my protagonist, Sally Solari, is also obsessed with food.
Recently, my food thoughts turned to the question, what exactly is the “official” difference between a vegetable and a fruit? You know the problem: A bell pepper is the fruiting part of the plant, is brightly colored, has seeds, and looks like a fruit. So why is it referred to as a vegetable?
A search on the web reveals numerous articles on the subject of “fruit vs. vegetable.” (See, e.g., here.) Certain plant foods are easy to classify: The non-seed-bearing parts—e.g., the leaves, stem, root—are almost (but see below) always vegetables, both in the botanical and culinary worlds.
The confusion arises with regard to the seed-bearing parts of plants. For instance, the flowers, if eaten before they produce seeds, are classified as vegetables. Thus, cauliflower and broccoli are vegetables, even though they would go to seed if left uncut.
There are, in fact, two different definitions for “fruit”: the scientific one, and the culinary one. In botany, a fruit is simply the seed-bearing part of any plant. Thus, green beans are fruit in scientific terms.
In culinary terms, however, a botanical fruit is only a “fruit” if it is sweet. The fabulous Harold McGee offers up this definition of culinary fruits in his wonderful treatise, On Food and Cooking:
Culinary fruits are distinguished from vegetables by one important characteristic: they’re among the few things we eat that we’re meant to eat. Many plants have engineered their fruits to appeal to the animal senses, so that animals will eat them and disperse the seeds within. These fruits are the natural world’s soft drinks and candies, flashily packaged in bright colors, and test-marketed through millions of years of natural selection.
They tend to have a higher sugar content, to satisfy the innate liking for sweetness shared by all animals. They have a pronounced and complex aroma, which may involve several hundred different chemicals, far more than any other natural ingredient.
And they soften themselves to an appealingly tender, moist consistency. By contrast, the plant foods that we treat as vegetables remain firm, have either a very mild flavor—green beans and potatoes—or else an excessively strong one—onions and cabbage—and therefore require the craft of the cook to make them palatable.
Sounds simple, non? But wait—there’s a hitch. Turns out that there are some seed-bearing parts of plants that are not sweet, but which are nevertheless often classified as fruits in the culinary world. The avocado, for example, is considered a fruit by many cooks. (See, e.g. here.) Perhaps this is because it is sometimes used in desserts, such as avocado pie.
And that’s not all. There are non-seed-bearing plant parts that are considered fruits by many cooks, such as rhubarb (see, e.g., here). This is no doubt because, although it isn’t sweet, rhubarb is used as a fruit in making desserts.
And then sometimes it takes the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether the plant part is a fruit or vegetable. (Yep, I’m an ex-lawyer, as is Sally Solari.) In Nix v. Hedden (1893), the court observed that tomatoes are “usually served at a dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally as dessert.”
Thus, the court determined, the tomato was a vegetable, and subject to the Tariff Act.
Readers: So, how do you cooks and non-cooks out there define fruits and vegetables? I’d love for you to share any amusing stories you might have on this conundrum!