Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fruit vs. Vegetable

When you've got kids, and you're doing your best to be actively, engagingly parenting at all times, everything is a "teachable moment". And when you're a foodie like me, meal times are especially fraught with opportunities to inform, enlighten, and just generally inflict my personal worldview onto my progeny.

But sometimes, even though I consider myself pretty well informed about food and all matters relating to food, I find myself saying stuff that I'm not even sure is true.

And so it was, the other night, when dinner included dishes featuring spinach, cucumbers, mushrooms, avocados, and grapes.

"Grapes! I like grapes!" says Henry.

"That's nice"

"Grapes are a fruit!"

"Yep, they sure are."

From there, we started breaking down the relevant categorizations of the other foodstuffs of which our dinner was comprised.

Spinach is an easy one. Clearly it's a vegetable. Grapes, we know are a fruit.

What about mushrooms? "Neither", I said. "Mushrooms are a fungus." I think.


Cucumbers? "Cucumbers are a fruit", I confidently announced. "And so are avocados. If it has a seed, then it's a fruit."

But I wasn't so sure, and found myself doubting this analysis, since, if this is the case, that means there are really a lot of vegetables that are really fruits.

So I looked it up.

The official scientific definition is that anything that is produced by a plant for the purpose of reproduction (so seeds and the stuff that contains/holds/protects seeds) is a fruit. Any other part of a plant (stems, leaves, flowers, roots) is a vegetable.

Crazy, no?

We tend to think of anything we tend to eat with our meal, in a savory preparation, as a vegetable, and things we eat on their own or as part of dessert as fruits. But that's just completely ass-backwards.

Olives and avocados are fruits, just like peaches and plums. They are all drupes. Other examples of drupes are mangoes, apricots, and almonds. Blackberries and raspberries are actually clusters of tiny drupes called "drupelets".

Cucumbers are fruits. Which makes sense, since, if you think about it, they are really similar to melons. Try eating a not-so-ripe green melon and see if it doesn't remind you of a cucumber. Squashes are part of this same "family" as well. Winter (or hard) squashes like acorn, butternut, and pumpkins, as well as summer (soft) squashes like yellow squash or zucchini are all fruits.

(Incidentally, the designation of "winter" or "summer" squash is fairly meaningless in today's horticultural world, although we do tend to eat the winter squashes much more during the cold weather months. Basically, winter squashes are long-keepers and, before the advent of refrigeration and flying in produce from South America, people would keep them in their cellars and eat them throughout the winter, whereas "summer" squashes would rot quickly and needed to be eaten soon after harvesting.)

Tomatoes, as most people know, are fruits. I think people are more open to this one, since good tomatoes do have a lot of sweetness, even though we wouldn't eat them for dessert or out of hand like we do an apple. But many people don't realize that eggplant and peppers (both spicy and sweet, or "bell" peppers) are also part of the same group, the "nightshade" family (Solanaceae).

This family also includes the poisonous belladonna plant, and, because Europeans knew of the belladonna before tomatoes were brought back from the new world (all Solanaceae are native to the western hemisphere), people in many parts of Europe were very slow to embrace tomatoes as a foodstuff. They were used as decorative items for years before they began to be incorporated for culinary use. In fact, the Italian word for tomato, pomodoro, (literal translation; "apple of gold") derives from what was basically a marketing campaign to get Italians to eat the foreign fruit that many associated with a poisonous plant. Considering how ubiquitous tomato products are in Italian cooking, it's pretty amazing to consider that they weren't really widely used in Italy until the 1700's.

Incredibly enough, the question of "fruit or vegetable" as it relates to tomatoes once came before the US Supreme Court. The Tariff Act of March 3, 1883 imposed a duty on vegetables, but not fruits, and so, the case of Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304), in which the Nixes sued to recover back duties paid to the port of New York under protest, the Supreme Court was forced to weigh in on the question.

The court ruled against the Nixes, claiming that the culinary categorization of a tomato as a vegetable based on the way it was used overruled the scientific designation that it was a fruit.

The court got it wrong, of course. Tomatoes are a fruit. This is the precursor to Ronald Reagan's infamous declaration that "ketchup is a vegetable". So the government has a history of (and some would argue, a vested interest in) getting it wrong.

Another yardstick some use to answer the question is; does taking the item and eating it kill the plant? Fruits are totally regenerative--plucking them off and eating them hurts the plant not at all. In fact, that's just what the plant wants you to do, since doing that effectively spreads the plants seeds around and aids in reproduction. This is, in theory, why many fruits are brightly colored and taste sweet. So eating fruits clearly doesn't kill the plant, whereas when you pull a carrot up out of the dirt and eat it, that carrot plant is no longer with us.

This, of course, calls into question the designation of a few "vegetables". Specifically, those that are essentially flowers (squash blossoms, broccoli, cauliflower) and those where the plant isn't killed when the vegetable is harvested, like asparagus. But flowers, while part of the reproductive process, are not, in and of themselves, reproductive in the way that seeds are.

So I'm sticking with my first definition, concerning reproduction and seeds, for the sake of sanity.

Getting back to the first definition, then, peas are a fruit. All peas, in fact--pea pods, English peas, snap peas, and blackeyed peas. Oh, but blackeyed peas are not actually peas, they're beans. But that's ok, because beans are in fact fruits as well. They're seeds contained in a seed pod which you can pluck off the vine and eat. Or, if you plant them, they'll grow a whole new bean plant. So, they're a fruit.

This is pretty crazy stuff once you start getting into it. Nuts are also fruits. They are the reproductive organs of trees like almond, hazelnut, pecan, and walnut. Same thing with nuts that aren't normally eaten by humans, like acorns, beech, and hickory nuts. Cashews are also a fruit, but don't grow on trees. Peanuts aren't really nuts at all; they are legumes. But, since legumes like lentils and soybeans are reproductive, they're fruits. So, a peanut is neither a pea nor a nut, but it is a fruit.

Corn, too, is a fruit. Each kernel contains a seed which can be planted and grown into a whole new corn plant. Which brings the question of grains into the discussion. Grains (rice, wheat, oats, etc) are seeds of certain grass plants. So they are also fruits. Almost everywhere I look on the internet disagrees with this, and most seem to be claiming that "grains" is a whole 'nother category, separate from fruits or vegetables, but that creates all sorts of gray areas with regard to "pulses" like lentils, beans, and, as noted above, corn. So I'm calling them fruits.

And, if that's not enough to really send your mind spinning, consider this; an argument can be made that a potato is actually a fruit. The eyes sprout and are reproductive. If you put a potato in water or the ground, a new plant will grow. Leave it long enough and the sprouts will flower and produce seeds. But, harvesting a potato kills the plant. And potatoes themselves do not actually contain seeds.

Similarly, one can find arguments made that strawberries are not a fruit, because the seeds are on the outside, and because the plant actually reproduces by sending out "runners", not via the seeds on the outside of the strawberry (another tangent; separate arguments exist that claim that strawberries are not actually berries either).

Crazy stuff. My mind is reeling. And, just think; all this started because I wanted to make sure I was giving my kid the right answers at the dinner table. Damn. I liked it better when cucumbers were vegetables simply by virtue of the fact that they go in salad. But it's not like I could claim that blue cheese and crumbled bacon are vegetables.

This parenting stuff is a real pain in the ass sometimes. Next time, I'm just going to take the easy way out and lie. "Yep. You got it. Cucumbers are vegetables. Now, quit squirming and eat your vegetables, Henry."


Jennifer said...

Very informative. I'm so jealous, I just saw that you won the contest for Food Buzz! I live in Oak Park, what restaurant are you a chef at??

Jennifer said...

I just read your "About Me" page, so now I know your story!

My Dad became a chef when I was in grade school, worked for about 10 years at the Marriott in Chicago, so I know how lucky your kids are to have a chef cook for them! I never knew how lucky I was!

David T said...

Did not know all of these were technically fruits. Came across your blog via Chicago's Best Blogs. Good stuff.