Monday, October 17, 2016

Are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables? Or Both?

When you buy produce at my supermarket, you have to weigh it yourself. I always struggle to find the tomatoes on the scales because the first thing you have to do is choose "fruit" or "vegetable". At the supermarket it's a vegetable, but I remember my father telling me it was a fruit (he's a horticulturalist).

Can it be both? The tomato isn't the problem, it's the terms "fruits" and "vegetables". When the tomato is classified as a fruit, we're considering it as "fruit" in the botanical sense. All botanists agree that the tomato is the fruit of the tomato plant. That's great if you want to grow them in the garden, but terrible once you take them into the kitchen.

The poor old tomato looks pretty lonely in this diagram.
Have you ever eaten a fruit salad with tomatoes in it? Probably not. This is because in terms of taste, tomatoes don't go very well with other fruits.

When cooking, classifying plants by their botanical function is fairly pointless. However, if you classify them according to their culinary function, you'll end up with better meals. This is how the tomato gets classified as a vegetable, along with a number of other botanical fruits that don't taste very good with their fellow fruits.

Additionally, in the US, the tomato is legally classified as a vegetable. In the late 19th century, an importer in New York argued that he was exempt from paying import duty on "foreign vegetables" because his tomatoes were fruits. While "botanically" correct, the Supreme Court didn't favour his smart-arsery and declared the fruit a vegetable for legal purposes.

So, is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? If you're a botanist, it's a fruit. If you're a chef, it's a vegetable. And if you're a lawyer, it's also a vegetable. Don't even get us started on cucumbers!