North Americans and most of the vegetables they eat have one thing in common -- most of their ancestors were foreigners. Even the name by which vegetables are identified on the market -- truck crops -- is foreign, and has nothing to do with transportation.

Only nine of the nearly 50 vegetables which have become common to the American table are natives of the Americas, and they (corn, white potato, sweet potato, lima bean, common bean, tomato, squash, summer squash and pepper) all originated in Central and the northern parts of South America. Those requiring colder climates, like the white potato, originated in the Andes mountains, while the sweet potato developed in the hot, moist climate of sea level. The list of vegetables that North Americans have adopted is long -- numbering at least 38, but their everyday names conceal the far away places of their origin; the egg plant and cucumber come from India; spinach and muskmelons from Persia; watermelon from Africa, which also sent okra; radishes and Chinese cabbage from China; asparagus, kale and collards from the lands of the Mediterranean, which also sent us cabbage; garden peas from Asia; and kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts from Northern Europe.

Other "foreigners" now in our diets are broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke, beet, rhubarb, parsnip, salsify, celery, parsley, leek, Swiss chard, turnip, rutabaga, cowpeas, Indian mustard, Chinese mustard, lettuce, carrot, onion, garlic and chive.

'Truck Crops" is the commonly heard expression to cover all vegetables, but it has no connection with the fact that a good many of them are hauled to market on trucks. An old meaning of the word "truck", derived from the French word troquer, is "to barter or exchange". The word developed a special meaning as a synonym for vegetables in general because of the practice of bartering or dealing in small lots of them in the marketplace.

The growing, marketing and consumption of vegetables in the United States today has come a long way since small lots were bartered. The field-to-table story of today's vegetables is a story of big business, and it is sometimes because of the needs of commerce that a fruit is a vegetable, or a vegetable is treated as a fruit.

The tomato is an example. Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit, but legally speaking it is a vegetable. The Supreme Court of the United States said so in 1893. An importer had argued that tomatoes were fruit and therefore not subject to a duty in effect at that time. The Court held that the tomato is a vegetable because it was usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, or with fish or meats that constitute the main part of the meal. This is less true now than it was then, for today a much larger part of our tomato crop is made into juice, but the tomato remains, legally, a vegetable.

Botanically speaking, the snap or green beans, the pod of peas, the garden pepper, the okra pod, and many others, are also fruits. But no one doubts that they are vegetables. The cucumber and muskmelon are closely related fruits. Both are the genus Cucumis. They are similar in habits of growth and in structure, both are grown by truck farmers by similar methods, move through the same channels of trade and both are eaten raw. Yet we always think of cucumbers as vegetables and of muskmelons as fruit.

It is custom which seems to dictate which plants are treated as vegetables and which as fruit but, generally speaking, vegetables are classified as those annual plants of which the immature succulent roots, bulbs, stems, blossoms, leaves, seeds, or fruits are eaten, and those perennial non-woody plants of which the roots, stems, leaf stalks or leaves are eaten.