Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fruit or Vegetable: UC Good Life Garden Cooks Up the Answer

If you ever hear me on the radio using the word "fruit" or "vegetable", please understand that there is, at the same time, several voices in my head shouting at me: "It's not a fruit, it's a vegetable!" or "How can that be a fruit, it's a berry!"

The voices get particularly loud when I talk about tomatoes, for example: "To see if a green tomato will eventually ripen, cut the fruit in half..."  all of a sudden, it's quite loud in here. 

This time of year, if I start talking about harvesting pumpkins and say something along the lines of: "this vegetable is fully ripe when..." Hey! Shut up in there! I know it's a berry!" I think.

At first, I turned to the Dictionary of Horticulture to assuage the denizens of my cranium. That book's definitions:

Fruit: "In common usage, any product of vegetable growth useful to humans or animals. In a more limited sense, the reproductive product of a tree or other plant...In a still more limited sense, an edible, succulent product of a plant, normally covering and including the seeds..."

Vegetable: An herbaceous cultivated plant used for food, such as turnips, potatoes, spinach, peas and beans."

Berry: "A simple fruit in which the entire pericarp (inside) is fleshy, except the outer skin or epicarp; for example, banana, tomato, grape, and currant."

So, now you understand why the inside of my head during radio shows resembles the McLaughlin overalls.

 However, the UC Good Life Garden blog page recently arrived at the logical conclusion (if I may paraphrase a Maria Muldaur tune): It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion. That blog pointed out the insightful reasoning of Harold McGee in his book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen:

"...for culinary or 'common' purposes, fruits are what we typically think of - apples, peaches, cherries - the sweet things we can eat right off the tree or put into pies.  So technically, green beans, eggplants, cucumbers, corn kernels and peppers are fruit.  But chefs consider them vegetables.  Why is this?



"It turns out that this culinary distinction has to do with flavor, which is a result of the basic makeup of the plant.  Fruits are engineered to be appealing to animals because it benefits the plant if animals eat the fruits because it helps to disperse the seeds.  As McGee says, 'they are one of the few things we eat that we’re meant to eat.' They usually have a high sugar content, complex aroma, and they soften themselves; all characteristics which add to their appeal.

"On the other hand vegetables are not meant to be eaten, and sometimes even have chemical defenses that are meant to keep animals from consuming them. (Think of the strong flavors and aromas that raw onions and cabbage have!)  Vegetables also remain firm and have either a very mild flavor or a very strong one and usually require cooking to make them palatable."

Thanks Good Life Garden, for clearing that up. But I guess we didn't need to go to UC Davis to find that out. 

We could of asked any five year old at dinnertime. Perhaps parents would have more success if they said, "Eat your fruit!" Or served vanilla ice cream with beans for dessert.

p.s. if your child with the finicky palate replies with, "But Farmer Fred says vegetables are not meant to be eaten!" ... um, I don't know what they're talking about. They're confusing me with something Bob Tanem said.


  1. Tell this to my two-year-old, who has chosen broccoli, of all things, to stuff himself with at the two wedding receptions we've been to recently. He has also fallen in love with tomatoes, bell peppers, and green beans, which he asks for even when we don't have them.

  2. "the McLaughlin overalls"!!!