Tuesday, May 20, 2008


the question arose recently among my friends if a pickle still is a vegetable, or if through the pickling process it becomes something else entirely.
the first question becomes: what is a vegetable? i attempted to consult my freshman biology book on the subject, but found it lacking any reference to the term "vegetable". a quick search on wikipedia (i know, not entirely reliable) explained why. the word "vegetable" is a culinary term, not a botanical term. the word "fruit" on the other hand can be a culinary term or a botanical term. botanically speaking, fruits are fleshy reproductive organs of plants, the ripened ovaries containing one or many seeds. many botanical fruits are not edible at all, and some are poisonous. in a culinary sense the word "fruit" is only applied to those botanical fruits which are edible, and which are considered to be a sweet or dessert food such as strawberries, peaches, plums, etc.
in contrast to this, a number of edible botanical fruits, including the tomato, the eggplant, and the bell pepper (!) are not considered to be a sweet or dessert food, are not routinely used with sugar, but instead are almost always used as part of a savory dish, and are salted. this is the reason that they are labeled as "vegetables".
on a total side note, the question "the tomato: is it a fruit, or is it a vegetable?" found its way into the supreme court in 1893. the case addressed whether a tomato was classified as a fruit or a vegetable under the tariff act of march 3, 1883, which required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. the case was filed as an action against edward l. hedden, collector of the port of new york, to recover back duties paid under protest. the court ruled unanimously that a tomato is correctly identified as, and thus taxed as, a vegetable. the court acknowledged that botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit.
anyway, back to the pickle. perhaps it is a question of nutrition. pickles contain the same amount of nutrition as the regular cucumber, albeit a great deal more sodium. not that nutritional value has any bearing on vegetable status - look at corn and iceberg lettuce. after consulting the history of the pickle provided by the new york food museum, i interestingly (i know "interesting" in this context is subjective) discovered ancient sources refer to the nutrional benefits of pickles and claim they have long been considered a beauty aid. cleopatra attributed her good looks to a hearty diet of pickles. also, before amerigo vespucci set out to explore the new world, he was a pickle peddler in spain. since food spoilage and the lack of healthy meals were such concerns on long voyages, he loaded up barrels of pickled vegetables onto explorer ships. hundreds of sailors were spared the ravages of scurvy because of his vespucci's understanding of the nutritional benefits of pickles.
so i've now spent a lot of time talking about pickles, something i don't even particularly care for. although i am intrigued by pickled fruits. i may try my hand at some pickling later this year. i can accept pickles as a vegetable in january.


Cin Twin1 said...

Is popcorn a vegetable?

k said...

hmm...excellent question, excellent question. what is the point at which a plant product transforms from vegetable into snack? according to cooking.com glossary, popcorn is "a form of corn kernel that upon heating bursts open, or "pops," into small balls that have a faint corn taste. popcorn, either white or yellow, is available in grocery stores." a corn chip wouldn't be considered a vegetable, perhaps due to additional ingredients and processing. popcorn is pretty unadulterated, you know, except for the faux butter. but in that vein, then the green giant frozen veggies with butter and herbs would be in a similar situation. it is a quandary.