Most people tend to be shocked and confused when they learn a tomato is not actually a vegetable but a fruit. Perhaps we associate fruits with sweetness and vegetables with savory flavors, but the real answer to these conundrums lies in a simple lesson of botany. When you sit down to eat your Thanksgiving dinner this holiday, let these lessons stew.
First of all, what is a fruit? Botanically speaking, a fruit is a ripened ovary. When you eat an apple, you are literally eating the apple tree’s ripened lady parts. That apple started out as a flower. This flower was visited by perhaps a honeybee that transferred pollen or male sex cells as she worked. These sex cells then went down into the flower and fertilized. The result is a ripe fruit. Fruits consist of an ovary wall, or the skin of the apple, and the seeds. These seeds are key, as only fruits have seeds.
So as you eat your Thanksgiving meal, many of the vegetables you are consuming are actually fruits if you are wise to the science of botany. Take delicious pumpkin pie, a key staple of any Thanksgiving meal. The filling is of course made from pumpkin, and a pumpkin is… a squash? Which is a vegetable? NO! Pumpkins and squash are fruits because they have seeds. How about some green bean casserole? Green beans have little immature seeds inside, so it’s a fruit as well.
So what then, is a vegetable? Well in the botanical world, there really is no use of the term vegetable. Vegetable is more of a culinary term. If you were to talk to a botanist, a vegetable is anything that is not a ripened ovary or fruit, and this would include things like flowers, leaves, roots, tubers, stems, bulbs and so on. You probably don’t think you eat any of those, but you do all the time, especially on Thanksgiving.
Let’s start with flowers. Broccoli and cauliflower are typical Thanksgiving dishes and they are undeveloped flowers. These plants are in the Brassicaceae family, along with mustard, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage, as all originally derived from the same plant. Speaking of leaves, Brussels sprouts and cabbage are leaf structures along with romaine lettuce, kale, spinach - you get the idea.
How about a favorite: mashed potatoes. These are not roots but tubers; modified stems that dwell beneath the soil. They offer storage of starches, and this storage takes place beneath ground to discourage hungry, above ground visitors. A good example of a root food would be a carrot, turnip, parsnip or beet. Lastly, the celery in your stuffing is actually a stem, and the onions in that mix are modified storage leaves known as bulbs.
So as you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal this holiday, be engaged and think about what you are eating. Maybe enlighten your friends and family with a little of this newfound Thanksgiving botany. It is sure to make for some interesting dinner conversation.