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Call Any Vegetable 

Veggie plates rule during the summer

Like most people with a backyard garden, I grow tomatoes. In my view there's no better summertime meal than fresh-picked, vine-ripened tomatoes mixed with sugar and mayo served alongside a medium-rare ribeye steak. Add an ice cold beer, throw in some buttered corn on the cob, and life is good.Enjoyable as they are, controversy does surround tomatoes: Are they fruit or are they vegetable? A botanist defines a fruit as having fleshy material covering a seed or seeds. He would therefore consider the tomato a fruit, much like watermelon, green pepper, or eggplant. To a horticulturalist, on the other hand, the tomato is a vegetable plant since it's an annual and non-woody. Most fruits like apples, cherries, and raspberries grow on a woody plant.

The Supreme Court eventually had to settle this dispute. In 1893, a suit was brought by American produce growers who wanted to protect US crop development and prices since fruits, at that time, were not subjected to import taxes. The US Supreme Court ruled in their favor and declared that the tomato was indeed a vegetable and subject to import taxes.

Here in the South, there's a deep-seated distrust of the federal government telling plain folks what is and is not a vegetable. By 1894, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Rev. Jebediah Bob Pissedhonkey led a protest insisting that the federal government get off people's backs and stick to its Constitutionally mandated job of legislating the morality of the good God-fearing white folks America was created for. His group defiantly proclaimed that macaroni and cheese was also a vegetable and that the federal government would have to pry the starchy, orange substance from their cold, dead fingers.

Traditions die hard in the South so most Southerners still consider macaroni and cheese a vegetable. If you're planning to have a veggie plate for lunch today but can't decide where to go, I've tried several pretty good ones for you. Here's what I found:

Gus' Sir Beef -- Renowned for two things: "Fresh My Farm Vegetables" and "World Famous Fried Squash." I rounded out my veggie trio of mac and cheese and squash, as any reasonable person would, with banana pudding.

Pros: The mac and cheese had a nice sharp cheddar taste to it. I found the texture a little soft for my preference, but it was otherwise rich and creamy. It had no discernable baked cheesy crust. The banana pudding had lots of fruit with a nice custardy taste. The Nilla wafers were firm. The fried squash lived up to its billing -- breaded, fried, and surprisingly sweet. Real good with Texas Pete Hot Vinegar on it.

Cons: Service in the Latta Arcade location was a bit slow considering that I was there at pre-rush 11:30am.

Price: $4.75 includes corn bread and biscuit.

Fun Facts to Know and Tell: Peter Nicol of England is the top-ranked squash player in the world.

Showmar's -- Showmar's restaurants offer Greek-influenced foods and pita specialties. The veggie choices vary by day and location, but the three I choose at the West 3rd Street restaurant (mac and cheese, cucumber salad, and banana pudding) are offered there every day.

Pros: The mac and cheese was rich and creamy, although the consistency was very mushy. The banana pudding had lots of fruit, the pudding was sweet, and the Nilla wafers were crispy fresh. The cucumber salad was refreshing with a sweet tang to it.

Cons: Stick with the biscuit or corn bread. The roll, contrary to my Yankee expectations, is essentially a hamburger bun.

Price: $4.45 includes choice of corn bread, biscuit, or roll.

Fun Facts to Know and Tell: Each Showmar's is unique. The one on W. 3rd Street features the James Brown of wait staffs -- the hardest working people in Showmar's business. Lunchtime is always busy but the waitresses and counter people are a constant blur of motion keeping you served and satisfied while never losing their friendly personality. Tip them well.

Mert's Heart and Soul -- This is the real deal when it comes to soul food. The interior of Mert's is filled with colorful artwork in a funky arrangement with background music ranging from reggae to blues to soul. The food choices include a nice selection of core staples and some innovative and downhome daily specials. The staff is always accommodating. Accompanying my mac and cheese on this visit were collard greens and black-eyed peas.

Pros: The macaroni held a good consistency while being surrounded by succulent melted cheese. This was the only mac and cheese that had some baked crust with it. The chef at Mert's clearly understands the importance of texture. The black-eyed peas had an earthy goodness to them and the collards, particularly when mixed with the Sriracha Thai chille sauce, were wonderful.

Cons: Mert's does not consider banana pudding to be a vegetable. (You can get a large bowl with whipped cream topping for an extra $3.50).

Price: $4.95 includes marvelous fresh baked corn bread.

Fun Facts to Know and Tell: The only better sauce on greens than Sriracha is Brother Bru Bru's African Hot Sauce.

You can e-mail Gene Lazo at GeneYouIgnorantSlut@Yahoo.com

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