A Tomato is a Vegetable
I love vegetables, and I love discussing them with others. But these conversations can be risky because there are two kinds of people: those who think tomatoes are vegetables, and those who think tomatoes are fruits. The two factions are perpetually warring with each other. I’m here to draw clear boundaries between the two categories and finally put the tomato in its proper place as a vegetable.
Why some people think tomatoes are fruits
When someone comes up to me and says, “Technically, a tomato is a fruit,” a little part of me withers and dies inside. But I may be acting hypocritical here because once upon a time, I, myself, was one of those people. In fact, the opinion that “a tomato is a fruit” is very popular among children– specifically, curious but misguided young tykes with a passion for facts. An integral part of growing up is sorting facts from fiction, and as I matured, I eventually realized that the worldview I had held about tomatoes was wrong. But let’s explore my former line of reasoning.
Any grade-school science class will tell you about the process of pollination for flowering plants. When a flower is pollinated by a bee or other insect, the pollen fertilizes the part of the flower called the ovule, where seeds are then produced. The seeds are surrounded by a tissue called the fruit, which may be fleshy (like in the case of the apple) or dry (like nuts).
Nuts (i.e. people who think tomatoes are fruits) would argue that since tomatoes reproduce in the ordinary way from a flower to a seed encased in fleshy fruit, we must classify tomatoes as fruits. But if you think about this critically, we really shouldn’t.
What science and social science tell us about fruits
The scientific definition of a fruit describes it as is the fleshy tissue around a seed. This scientific definition uses the word “fruit” in the same way we would use the word “fruit” in the context that “my hard work proved fruitful” or “my child is the fruit of my womb.” In other words, the word “fruit” in science is used only to say that the fruit is the “product” of the ovaries of the flower.
What the fruit-nuts are suggesting, however, is that we culturally recategorize the tomato. “Technically,” they say, “a tomato is a fruit and we should start recognizing it as one.” What does that statement imply? It implies that what we’ve traditionally categorized the tomato as (a vegetable) is wrong.
A quick Wikipedia search produces this atrocity:
This Venn Diagram, although accurate, is very misleading. Firstly, the word “culinary vegetable” is redundant, because there is no other definition of a vegetable. “Vegetable” simply isn’t a botanical categorization. Secondly, it is an indisputable fact that a tomato is a botanical “fruit” of the tomato plant in the scientific sense, but what about the social sense? Steeped in the social and cultural climate of modern times, what we call a culinary fruit has become radically different from a botanical “fruit.” A botanical fruit is defined by the laws of science, while a culinary fruit is the product (or fruit) of subjective views and opinions. In essence, a culinary fruit is a social construct.
And what is that social construct? Any three year-old not confused by “science” can tell you that an apple or a banana (which actually classifies as a botanical “berry”) are fruits, but tomatoes are vegetables.
Why should I care?
While the fruit may be a social construct, that does not mean it is impossible to define. A careful sociologist will examine many cultures and perspectives, but will inevitably come to the conclusion that tomatoes will always be categorized as a vegetable (another social construct) and not a fruit. Therefore, those with real wisdom should say, “Technically, a tomato is a botanical fruit of the tomato plant, but we must never lose sight of its place in our society as a vegetable.”
I may have written this article to vent about my pet peeve, and practically, nobody will ever put much thought into the question of whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable; but there is some important information to be gained here. People who think tomatoes are fruits are not stupid. They know to use science to support their point of view. However, they failed to recognize the difference between botanical fruits and culinary fruits. They did not take into account the culture that surrounds them and the very important branch of science, sociology. They did not do their own critical thinking, and instead, believed the botanically-supported but fundamentally inaccurate statements of Internet articles or their friends. Why would smart people do that? It’s because they mistrusted their own intuition and common sense. When an assertion like “a tomato is a fruit” goes against your intuition, it should be a cue for you to think rationally and critically about it, carefully weighing its truth.