Friday, July 15, 2016

When is a Fruit a Vegetable?

I think about food a lot, probably because I seem to be perpetually hungry (the result, no doubt, of the increasing need to limit my caloric intake, since the older I get the less efficiently my body is able to burn those calories).

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?

this one clearly has “fruiting” parts

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.

definitely vegetables

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.

cauli and romanesco

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. 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.

natural selection meets human tinkering in a fruit

[Culinary fruits] 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. [Ed. note: the genome of the pinot noir grape was sequenced a few years back, revealing that it has more genes in its DNA than the human genome.]

not pinot noir, but still complex

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.

sweet and soft mangoes

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.

the first avocado from my tree

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 my protagonist, 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.

So, how do you cooks and non-cooks out there define fruits and vegetables? Do share any amusing stories you might have on this conundrum! 

sometimes fruits and veg go well together, too!