The Key Distinction: Flavor

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Why do we customarily prepare vegetables as side dishes to the main course, and make fruits the centerpiece of the meal’s climax? 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. They tend to have a high 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. 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.