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The Great Debate: “Fruit” or “Vegetable?”


Recently, Jan and I were asked to write a column on kitchen gardening for our local on-line newspaper, For the most part, we intend to cross-post articles but our first post was a getting-to-know-you piece that’s exclusive to On Tuesday, we cross-posted about ichiban eggplant and we got a question by email that’s good enough to make a whole post about. One reader noted that we referred to eggplant as both a fruit and a vegetable and wanted to know, basically, what’s up with that?

Fruits vs. vegetables: It’s a great debate, I’ve come to appreciate, joined in by cooks and diners and gardeners and botanists and I even think the U.S. government has an opinion about it because of tariffs. I do not pretend to resolve the matter, only to add my voice to the great conversation. PLEASE, feel free to add your voice in the comments.

My favorite definition of a vegetable is “food your kids won’t eat.” I am only partially joking but what I like about this approach is that it accents preparation and reception. I’ve eaten sweet potatoes that were clearly a “vegetable” – roasted split down the middle with butter and garlic as a side to tandoori chicken- but also baked into a pie for dessert. One of Jan’s favorite salads blends garden greens with walnuts, crumbled bleu cheese… and dried cherries. I suspect many omnivores have trouble grokking vegetarianism because they’ve implicitly defined “vegetable” as a side-dish. To me, vegetables are the broad category of garden products primarily when considered as food. When I tell folks I’m a vegetable gardener, they know I’m growing things to eat, though I prefer the term “kitchen garden” since I feel it allows me to tuck in a few flowers.

But personally when I use the word “fruit” I’m indicating a specific part of plant anatomy. A fruit – to me – is a fleshy seed container. This means that tomatoes are fruits as are apples, as well as rose hips – though some rose varieties have a fleshier fruit than others. My beloved jalapeno peppers are fruits as are pumpkins and squash. But kale – the edible part – is a just a leaf as is lettuce and cabbage. Broccoli – if we catch it before it goes into bloom – is a cluster of buds. Asparagus is a stalk. Corn – to me – doesn’t feel like a fruit because it lacks flesh apart from the juicy sweetness of the kernels themselves… but that’s where the problem comes in. To botanists, I think corn is a fruit because their idea of “fruit” is also a seed container but they don’t seem to care if it’s fleshy or not, only if it develops from a flower.

So why do I willfully diverge from the proper botanical definition? By describing a fruit as a fleshy seed container, I identify two interacting factors I keep in mind about all my “fruits,” namely seeds and flesh. This system isn’t as important with my non-fruiting garden inhabitants. The plant itself is likely most interested in producing viable seeds while I’m (usually) more interested in getting delectable flesh. My general rule of thumb is that I don’t let any fruit sit on the vine too long unless I’m intending to use the seeds. At one extreme, I like to harvest yellow summer squash when they are clearly immature, when they haven’t even begun to think about making seeds. With winter squash and pumpkins, however, I let the seeds develop because they are a product themselves. (Try them oven dried with a dash of tamari or as a replacement for pine nuts in pesto.) When to pick tomatoes is itself another Great Debate – whether to let them ripen fully or pick them when they first start to turn – but in the background is the concern about the quality of the flesh and whether the plant has started diverting too much attention to making viable seed.

That’s what I mean when I say “vegetable” or “fruit” but I’m far from dogmatically attached to these usages. What do you think?

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. The Great Debate: “Fruit” or “Vegetable?” | Our Twenty Minute … | Vegetable Container Gardening linked to this post on August 12, 2010

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