Tomatoes are fruit: True/False?

While Connor Haley is focussed on tomatoes, Stephanie Edmond also wonders about pumpkins and watermelons. Two vegetables and a fruit? Or are they all fruit? Both are true, depending on context.

Now, before you start tutting to yourself and muttering that this is all the fault of fancy-pants so-called experts bamboozling good honest folk, let me point out that it is our everyday senses of “fruit” and “vegetable” that are bamboozling. To the botanist or gardener, a fruit is a fleshy envelope containing seeds that a plant uses for reproduction. Couldn’t be clearer, and it is important that technical terms have precise meanings if they are to communicate precise ideas.

The problem with this definition is that while apples, peaches and watermelons are definitely covered, so are pumpkins, tomatoes and avocados. In everyday use, the last three are not fruit, but vegetables. But this everyday distinction is very hard to pin down. The scientific definition seems to be involved — everyday fruit all seem to be fleshy and seed-bearing — but there is something extra needed to get into the everyday fruit club.

Perhaps a good start is to say an everyday fruit must be sweet. But then tomatoes are sweeter than lemons, and tomatoes still count as vegetables. What about saying that an everyday fruit can be eaten for dessert. That’s better but what about carrot cake and pumpkin pie? The point is that trying to define the everyday sense of fruit based on structure, chemical composition or function is a mugs game. In the kitchen fruitiness depends more on accidents of history and other cultural baggage than on any rigorous criteria. You just have to learn which is which by following the crowd.

Experts use a specialized sense of fruit which includes tomatoes and pumpkins to ease scientific intercourse (not as exciting as it sounds). That doesn’t make our everyday senses of fruit and vegetable wrong, though, which is why the would-be pedants who like to point out at the dinner table that a tomato is really a fruit deserve any rotten ones that come their way.

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