Fruit and Vegetable

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Apart from such plant seeds as wheat and rice, which are described in chapter 9, the most prominent plant foods in our diet are fruits and vegetables. Vegetable took on its current sense just a few centuries ago, and essentially means a plant material that is neither fruit nor seed. So what is a fruit? The word has both a technical and a common meaning. Beginning in the 17th century, botanists defined it as the organ that develops from the flower’s ovary and surrounds the plant’s seeds. But in common usage, seed-surrounding green beans, eggplants, cucumbers, and corn kernels are called vegetables, not fruits. Even the United States Supreme Court has preferred the cook’s definition over the botanist’s. In the 1890s, a New York food importer claimed duty-free status for a shipment of tomatoes, arguing that tomatoes were fruits, and so under the regulations of the time, not subject to import fees. The customs agent ruled that tomatoes were vegetables and imposed a duty. A majority of the Supreme Court decided that tomatoes were “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.” Ergo tomatoes were vegetables, and the importer had to pay.