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kottke.org posts about Bill Bryson

What Is a Vegetable? Do They Even Exist?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2019

Last night at dinner, we were talking about our favorite vegetables1 and when my daughter said tomatoes might be her pick, my 11-year-old son, who is at that annoying know-it-all stage of his life and loves to shut down his sister on any minor quibble, said “tomatoes are a fruit”. I argued back that while a tomato might technically be a fruit, it is culturally considered a vegetable and that he was just being a pedantic dick in order to dunk on his sister (but not in those exact words).

This morning, I ran across this piece by Lynne Peskoe-Yang called Vegetables Don’t Exist, in which the author goes quite a bit deeper into what a vegetable is now (and has been in the past).

Botanically speaking, it’s still clear: eggplants, tomatoes, bell peppers, and squash are all fruits. It’s equally clear that mushrooms and truffles are fungi, more closely related to humans than they are to plants. But these are all, also, in common usage, “vegetables.” Yet when an authority like the Oxford English Dictionary should provide clarity on what a vegetable actually is, it instead defines vegetables as a specific set of certain cultivated plant parts, “such as a cabbage, potato, turnip, or bean.” And since carrots and turnips are roots, potatoes are tubers, broccoli is a flower, cabbage is a leaf, and celery is a stem, we find that “vegetable” rarely applies to the entire plant (or to the same parts of the plant), while it also has a way of applying to things that aren’t actually vegetables. It is a category both broader and more specific that the thing it’s supposed to describe.

The piece also references my favorite thing about the English language (which I first learned about in Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue) about why the food that results from pigs & cows are called pork & beef:

During Norman and early Plantagenet rule, the farm-to-table divide was less of a foodie buzzword than a class distinction: the upper class were served in French while serfs and servants planted, harvested, raised, butchered, and cooked in Anglo-Saxon. The French word for the served food lived alongside the Germanic word for its source. When Anglo-Saxon chickens were slaughtered, they became poultry for the Normans to eat. Food and animal were class-divided döppelgangers: Anglo-Saxon sheep, cows, swine, and doves were transformed into French mouton (mutton), boeuf (beef), porc (pork), and pigeons (pigeons).

(via @legalnomads)

Update: Apparently there is no such thing as a fish either.

If you choose to describe fish as, say, all the animals descended from the salmon lineage, then you’ve left out lungfish. Oops. If you choose to include both the salmon and the lungfish, you’ll see that one descendant of that original fishy-fish that gave rise to salmon and lungfish likewise gave rise to the cow. Suddenly, you’re stuck with either having the fish include the cows and humans, which no one wants, or no fish at all. Hello, modern evolutionary science; goodbye, fish.

(thx, paul)

  1. The whole thing came up because I remembered how amazing Momofuku’s brussels sprouts are and told the kids its one of my all-time favorite veggie dishes. Other favorites include corn on the cob (from a particular farm in Massachusetts), a perfectly ripe tomato (in caprese salad or on a BLT), asparagus, the snap peas I get from the local farmers’ market in the summer, hen of the woods mushrooms, and beets.

How come forks have four tines?

posted by Aaron Cohen   May 17, 2010

In a Guardian excerpt from the forthcoming At Home by Bill Bryson, some mysteries of the home are revealed. My favorite was why forks have four tines. Incidentally, eating forks were introduced by Thomas Coryate who also introduced the umbrella

Eating forks were thought comically dainty and unmanly - and dangerous, too, come to that. Since they had only two sharp tines, the scope for spearing one’s lip or tongue was great, particularly if one’s aim was impaired by wine and jollity. Manufacturers experimented with additional numbers of tines - sometimes as many as six - before settling, late in the 19th century, on four as the number with which people seemed most comfortable. Why four should induce the optimum sense of security isn’t easy to say, but it does seem to be a fundamental fact of flatware psychology.

(via jkottke) (Ironic, huh?)