When I tell people I don't eat vegetables, inevitably someone will ask me, "So you only eat meat?"
Yes, I know that when you play 20 Questions, you have to start off by telling the guesser whether the object you're thinking of is "animal, vegetable, or mineral." This does not, however, mean that everything made out of plant matter constitutes a "vegetable." Rice, apples, and papyrus reeds are all plants, for example, but no one in their right mind would call any of those objects a vegetable.
Conversely, some living creatures that aren't in the same taxonomic category as what most people think of as "vegetables" do qualify as vegetables. A tomato, people are quick to remind you, is technically a fruit, and yet even President Ronald Reagan tried to get tomato ketchup to qualify as a vegetable in school lunches.
So, what makes something count as a vegetable? What categorization scheme do I use to weed out the loathsome plants that parents traditionally force their children to eat against their will from the benign plants? The answer is, FOOD GROUPS. If it's in the vegetable food group, it's a vegetable, period. I don't care that tomatoes are taxonomically part of the pepper family and evolved from the same ancestors as fruit-bearing trees. They're in the vegetable food group, and that makes them vegetables.
And, no, for those of you out there who have lived in a cave for the last 30 years, I'm not just making this "food group" stuff up. The U.S. government used to have an official "food pyramid", and now has its "my plate" iconography, both of which were/are broken down by food groups as follows:
See that green quadrant on the lower-left part of the big plate? That's the "Vegetable Group." There is an official U.S. food group called the Vegetable Group, and not all plant matter goes into that group! Bread doesn't belong there. Fruit doesn't belong there. But tomatoes do.
The U.S.D.A. has a webpage that describes the Vegetable Food Group in more detail, at http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/vegetables.html. As representative members of said Food Group, the page lists spinach, romaine lettuce, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, peas, navy, pinto, and kidney beans, chickpeas, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and green beans.
*Shudder* Just copying-and-pasting all those vegetable names into this webpage gives me the heebie-jeebies. But notice that "tomatoes" is on that list. According to the USDA, tomatoes are vegetables. See? I'm not making this up!
You'll note, however, that many plant-based foods are distinctly absent from the Vegetable Group, and are included in either the Fruit Group, the Bread-Cereal-Rice-and-Pasta Group, or — in the case of beans — in the meat group.
Grains are not vegetables. I can't stress that enough. Grains are not vegetables! Rice is not a vegetable. Wheat is not a vegetable. Oats are not a vegetable. Rye and barley are not vegetables. And the U.S. government agrees — they all go in the Bread-Cereal-Rice-and-Pasta Group on the Food Pyramid, or in the Grain group shown on the myplate logo above. Not, I repeat, not in the Vegetable Group.
This is why breakfast cereal is okay for us vegephobes to eat.
Corn is the big heartbreaker of plants, because it's either a grain or a vegetable depending on what state it's in. It's the switch hitter of a vegephobe's world.
When corn is sitting there on the cob, all yellow and squishy, it's a vegetable. However, when corn is taken off the cob and dried out, it's a grain. Cornbread is made with corn meal, which makes it a grain. Popcorn is made with dessicated corn kernels, and so is also a grain. Canned or frozen corn, on the other hand, goes out of its way to retain corn's various icky on-the-cob qualities, and therefore qualifies as a (yicch) vegetable.
Mushrooms, too, are vegetables.
Purists may object, because mushrooms technically aren't even plants. They belong to the Fungus Kingdom. I've always found it a bit odd that people would want to eat something that belongs to the same kingdom as Athlete's Foot and bread mold.
Nutritionally, the U.S.D.A. counts mushrooms as part of the Vegetable Food Group, which should be enough to convince you that they're vegetables. But above and beyond that, I know they're vegetables for two incontrovertible reasons:
Like corn, tomatoes can undergo a startling food group transformation when they are processed the right way. When pureed (all the way, so that there are no icky vegetably chunks), they form the basis for both pizza sauce and spaghetti sauce, the likes of which no earthly being can live without. In that state, assuming the tomato puree is sufficiently seasoned and that there isn't too much of it, tomatoes are no longer vegetables. I have yet to unravel this mystery.
Next chapter: How to Deal With Anti-Vegephobe Prejudice (And With Vegetarians)
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