Sunday, August 24, 2008

lemon cucumber

I'm back in San Francisco and have a new late-summer obsession: the lemon cucumber. In the current climate of multiculturalism and fusion, it may seem a little trendy to be enamored of a piece of produce that boasts the vaguely exotic yet familiar allure of the hybrid, the indeterminate, the mestizo, but this fruit masquerading as a vegetable disguised as a fruit (a kind of double drag, F to V to F) has been lurking about farmers markets since 1894. I found these little guys at the Noe Valley Farmers market and also saw them at the Ferry Building. My friend Zoe first suggested them to me after she saw them in Israel this summer.

Unlike the pluot or aprium, which are true cross-bred composites of separate fruits, this apple-cheeked salad stuffer is indeed a cucumber that merely resembles a brightly sour lemon and is actually slightly sweeter than other cucumbers. Like its relatives, the gourd and the squash, the cucumber is classified as a fruit for having enclosed seeds and developing from a flower but is associated with vegetables for its more neutral flavor and use in savory dishes (thanks Wikipedia!).

A question that has come up often since we started this blog is, "What exactly is a vegetable?" and I was reluctant to investigate the answer for fear that it would limit the specimens I could honestly post on the site without feeling self-indulgent. But the doors have been thrown wide open thanks again to my favorite unofficial Wiki-research site (our backroom team of Weird Vegetable fact-checkers are falling off their swivel chairs in horror), which informs us that "the term 'vegetable' generally means the edible parts of plants" and that the "definition of the word is traditional rather than scientific," based more on cultural associations, culinary uses, and food retailing, making its usage "somewhat arbitrary and subjective." So there. Anything edible from a plant goes. Viva la Vegetable!


Anonymous said...

I'm fine with traditional definitions, rather than scientific -- according to the scientific definition, wheat is a fruit, so clearly that definition isn't helping much -- but still: what do you mean by "the edible parts of plants"? I mean, how is that not everything? What's a blackberry? Or is the berry not "part" of a "plant" somehow? And if so, the traditional definition might not help us much either. Perhaps it's time for an exclusive definition.

Or maybe I'm just misunderstanding. I'm in the countryside and the sun in shining in my eyes.

kale daikon said...

Dear e h,

I am warmed by the fervence of your desire for a more enlightened relationship to the world of produce. I think one conclusion we can come to is that definitions are always imperfect contingencies that help us navigate the world and its many communities but only up to a certain point, after which blind adherence to a prescribed set of categories seems silly, and perhaps even fascist in the worst of cases.

In my rube-like understanding, a berry can be considered as both a fruit *and* a vegetable, fruits being an exclusive subset of the more democratic vegetable universe, which embraces all the various misfits and rag-tag hangers-on that can be considered both edible and plant. So if some poor seed pod or succulent is feeling left out, all you have to do is eat it to get the little guy into the club.

I wish I were in the countryside right now, though the city sun is still shining in my eyes.

Yours in vegetable harmony,

Anonymous said...

On one hand, I applaud your rejection of empty distinctions and fascist prescriptions. On other other, your apparent compromise is actually a thinly disguised grab at vegetabolic hegemony. Fruits are but a subset of a vegetable universe? Tell that to my juicy peach. Who's to say it isn't the other way around -- your carrots and cukes are among the fruit of the earth?

In any case, I propose instead the creation of a formula integrating the relevant characteristics, no one feature determinant in itself but as a whole generating a placement on the f vs v spectrum. For example: q = (2x + y) * 1/2, where x is the traditional societal understanding, y the scientific definition (seeds and whatnot), and q is a fruit/vegetable quotient. The formula needs lots of refinement, of course, but isn't that what blogs are for?

kale daikon said...

I think my head just exploded in a spray of watermelon seeds.

RUDHI Rüscher said...

Would like to paint before tasting them;-)

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Lynn Zavaro said...

Hi! Just to let you know I linked to your blog from my blog as I was trying to find out if my childhood encounter with lemon cucumbers on a family trip to the bay area was true...thank you for finally confirming this for me!

steve said...

Nice post, lemon cucumbers very much deserve publicity - I tried them once and was hooked. This summer Im planning on having a garden full of them to keep up with me!

Anonymous said...

Hey all. I have a friend who is a docent at a zoo and we use elephant/giraffe/rhino poop to fertilize our gardens. For the last few years we have done this, and anything fertilized grows lemon cucumber plants out of it like crazy. But the zoo only feeds normal cucumbers to the animals. Any ideas how this can be? The zookeepers and us have been stumped.

kale daikon said...

Wait, you mean you never planted any lemon cucumber seeds and so lemon cucumbers just sprout on top of whatever it is you are fertilizing? I have no explanation, other than that a weird vegetable enthusiast is working at the zoo and snuck in some l-c's as a special treat for these most noble of land mammals.

Peter Knop said...

Lemon cucumbers and elephant poop - explanation would be that "normal" cucumbers were hybridised from the lemon cucumber or the lemon cucumber genes are dominant, so when the hybrid produces seeds, these revert back - make any sense?

qwerty said...

the first line of the cucumber wiki says The cucumber (Cucumis sativus) is a widely cultivated plant in the gourd family Cucurbitaceae. It is a creeping vine which bears cylindrical edible fruit when ripe.
What does it bear when ripe? Fruit.
fruit as a definition:
the developed ovary of a seed plant with its contents and accessory parts, as the pea pod, nut, tomato, or pineapple. the product of a plant with seeds that is a result of a pollinated plant ovary.
A fruit starts from the flowers or ovaries of a plant. All of the rest of the plant is a vegetable. A vegetable is something that vegetates. A vegetable is a leaf. If it a part of the plant is a result of a pollinated ovary or flower such as a tomato, cucumber, pumpkin, strawberry, zucchini, then it is a fruit. The leaves of those plants are vegetables. Spinach, lettuce, kale are examples of vegetables. Potatoes, carrots, and onions don't exactly qualify for vegetables because they don't vegetate. They are simply roots/tubers. Hope this helps!

Satnam Sunamwala said...

These look like "phut", a common rural vegetable in North India.

Glen said...

Its not that difficult people. Fruit is the produce of a plant. The plant is the plant, therefore edible part of a "plant" is a vegetable, the fruit of a plant is the fruit!

Glen said...

Its not that difficult people. Fruit is the produce of a plant. The plant is the plant, therefore edible part of a "plant" is a vegetable, the fruit of a plant is the fruit!

Vegetables said...

I thought it would have been sour.

George said...

I have successfully grown lemon cukes on and off for the last 5 years. This year I planted them in my raised bed and they are going nuts! Ready to pick the first large lemon-shaped fruit in a day or two.

I was curious about the origins of this peculiar and oh-so-effing delicious fruit and came upon your blog. Nice! I also came across an interesting article by an R.W. Robinson of Cornell Hort. Department.

The report is filled with lots of genetic info but also has some interesting historical info about this interesting cuke. One fascinating fact: "Its andromonoecious sex expression, with male and female elements in the same blossom, results in more natural self pollination than that of monoecious cucumbers which have the sexes in separate flowers."

Translation: it's a much more effective form of pollination. Having both male and female elements in the same flower greatly increases the likelihood and speed of fertilization and fruit development. WOW!

But if truth be told, the article had me at "andromonoecious." :0)

Link to article here:

kale daikon said...

Dear George,

You just blew my mind with "andromonoecious sex expression." Lemon cucumbers are even queerer than I first thought, it turns out. This remains the most popular and commented-upon WV post ever, and one day, when I've retired from being Stretched Too Thin (i.e. juggling PhD completion + monster translation job + campus administrative job), I need to write a follow-up post. Thank you for this further reading!