It’s August and my garden is full of growing things: beans, broccoli, onions, carrots, tomatoes and much more.
Right now, my favorite garden vegetable is going crazy. Every day I bring handfuls of tomatoes — huge pink Brandywines; sweet, sweet Black Crims, a Russian variety that never gets red but gets black on top when it is ripe; and all of the other interestingly named red ones, Beefsteaks and Big Boys and Early Girls, and so on.
Some say the tomato is a fruit; I call it a vegetable. I’m not really concerned about who is correct, but I am interested in vegetables.
And lots of my vegetables are ready for harvest: I bring buckets (ice cream buckets) of beans into the house and my wife graciously prepares them for supper or for the freezer. (Hint: Frenched beans freeze better than whole ones.) Cucumbers are hanging from my west side garden fence begging to be picked. Glimmers of yellow squash can be seen through the green foliage at the back of the garden.
My wife is in charge of the beets and one day this week she will pull them and make the most wonderful pickled beets in the world. And the kohlrabi are close to being ready. When I was a boy we cooked kohlrabi, but these days we eat it raw, sliced thin with a little salt. Umm, wonderful.
What I am trying to do is to make all of you who decided not to garden this year just a little bit envious.
“Vegetable” comes from a Latin word that means healthy, lively, vigorous, fresh. In fact, the word “vigor” comes from the same source as vegetable.
For many years, centuries in fact, vegetable meant any growing thing, any plant. Most of us have played that old guessing game, “Twenty Questions,” which uses the three categories “Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral.” Any vegetation was called a vegetable. This meaning of vegetable existed from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s. In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes said of two trees that they were “both pleasant vegetables.”
By the late 1900s, however, our present use of vegetable as a certain kind of food was beginning. Thus we see the word narrow from a broad term meaning any green-growing plant, to a term that designates edible foods that come from plants.
Go back now to the original Latin meaning with me: healthy, lively, vigorous. These sound like good words to describe the qualities of the vegetables we eat. However, common slang usage has given us another meaning for vegetable that is exactly the opposite of lively and vigorous. “He’s nothing but a vegetable,” we say sadly of a person with a severe brain injury who seems to have no life or vigor. George Bernard Shaw writes in “Back to Methuselah,” “What use is this thousand years life to you, you old vegetable?” The implication is that anybody a thousand years old is not likely to have much vigor or move about much.
I suppose this slang meaning has developed because unlike animals, vegetables pretty much stay in one place until they are harvested. Hence also our phrase “couch potato.”
But I like much better the original and still operative meaning of vegetable. What marvelous gifts from the hand of the Creator. Vegetables are full of life and health and they bring life, health and vigor to us when we eat them. We remember the story of Daniel and his three friends who ate, according to the NIV translation of the Bible, “nothing but vegetables,” and were “better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.” Perhaps there’s a nutrition lesson there.
David Schelhaas taught high school English for 23 years and English at Dordt College for 20. He is now retired and lives in Sioux Center with his wife Jeri.