What's a Vegetable? / by Anne

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Happy Thanksgiving!  Did you have pumpkin debates at your house, too?  Ours hit us by surprise.  World Championship Punkin Chunkin' was on TV, and after a particularly good launch, some dude on the show commented, "Not bad for a vegetable." 

"Except that a pumpkin's a fruit," I commented, probably smugly.

Mom protested with equal authority, "Except that it's a vegetable." 

"Pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers, watermelon.  All fruits," I insisted.  "They blossom, they have seeds on the inside.  Fruits!  Oh yeah, by the way, did you know that strawberries aren't really fruits? Their seeds are on the outside.  They're in the rose family." 

Now Mom's eyes narrowed suspiciously, a look I recognize from the bluffs we try to pull on each other during Scrabble games, trying to sell fictional words with made-up definitions.  She informed me,  "The only reason I'm not checking this out right now is because I decided I wouldn't use my computer on Thanksgiving..."   I was already opening up my laptop bag and getting online. 

Sure enough, I was right.  So was Mom. The ideal argument conclusion for a day of thanks.

Each time I've ever learned about another "vegetable" actually being a fruit--tomato, capsicum, eggplant, squash--I've gotten a mini thrill.  On a botanical level, they are considered fruits (and yes, the strawberry is botanically a "false fruit"). Knowing this feels like being in on a botany secret. 

However, as I picked up these nuggets of info, it didn't occur to me that there's not an equivalent "vegetable" botanical category as with various fruits. Scientists do use the word vegetable to refer to plants, such as "vegetable matter."   However, fruits and vegetables are not mutually exclusive.  So much for that mental game of Red Rover in which we sort out who's who: "Oh, goody, spinach still gets to be on my side!  The veggies are ahead!  Oh well, you get beans."  

The word "vegetable" is a culinary or cultural term.  Any edible plant or edible part of a plant can be considered a vegetable: leaves, roots, stems, flower buds, bulbs, and even fruits.   And, of course, since the term is culinary and cultural, that means people can come together to decide whether something's a vegetable or not.  For example, in 1893 the US Supreme Court ruled the botanical fruit, tomato, to be a vegetable for taxation purposes.  Cultural vegetable, botanical fruit.   

 Well, now that that's settled, I have to say: Punkin Chunkin'???  A World Championship for it?  This is the first day I've heard of it.  It's a whole different area of food-related science I've been missing out on: physics.

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