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Educated (9): taxonomy and the fruits of knowledge

You’re probably familiar with the old saw “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”

This response to the smart alec’s observation that a tomato is not (botanically speaking) a vegetable points out that the distinction is meaningless in the kitchen.*

Think a little harder and it gets worse for Alec: botanically speaking, “vegetable” isn’t a comparable category at all but rather refers to anything related to plants, as in “vegetable matter,” – so the tomato is actually both.

Setting this aside, the trumpeting of the tomato’s fruitiness** obscures the fact that many other (culinary) vegetables are also fruit, including cucumbers, peppers and chillies, aubergines, pumpkins, courgettes/zuchini, peas (when in their pods), olives and sweetcorn. Imagining someone smirkingly pointing out that “sweetcorn is actually a fruit” reveals the inanity of the fact more clearly.

The fruit / vegetable category mismatch is actually the start of fruitful rabbit hole of shocking categorisations. It turns out, for example, that many of the fruit named above are (botanically) berries, as are apples, bananas and watermelon.*** The only fruit that seem not to berries are the ones we refer to as berries: raspberries and blackberries and their ilk aren’t berries but aggregates of “drupelets” – each little orb on the fruit are like miniature cherries or peaches (single seeded “drupes”****). To make things worse, the strawberry turns out not to be fruit at all, but a “greatly enlarged flower receptacle embedded with many true fruits, or achenes” – that is, what we think of as the seeds of the strawberry are actually its fruit.

So what’s my point?

  1. That category confusion happens easily…
  2. … and as a result can be used by cheap bamboozlers to make others feel uneducated or insecure… (I’m reminded of overhearing a neighbour saying “That’s not a computer, you idiot – it’s a laptop.”)
  3. … and that education needs to draw attention to the fact that our taxonomies, however logical, are (a) entirely made up; (b) serve particular purposes; (c) useful mainly within those purposes; and (d) can be misleading or damaging outside them.

May your spirits never drupe.*****

*Disclaimer: I’m fairly sure I’ve eaten tomatoes in fruit salads and they were delicious.

**It might be that we’re particularly aware of the tomato’s status as fruit because the US Supreme Court ruled on it in the 1800s.

***Fruit containing multiple seeds that grows from a single ovary in a flower.

****Fruit with a large single seed from a single ovary

*****Unless you’re making sloe gin kirsch or peach schnapps, which call for liberal druping.

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