It was on this day in 1893 that the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. Their ruling was in light of a 10-year-old piece of legislation called the Tariff Act of 1883, which ruled that a 10 percent tax had to be paid on all imported vegetables. The case, known as Nix vs. Hedden, was filed by John Nix and several other tomato importers against Edward Hedden, the Collector of Customs at the Port of New York. The case wound up in the Supreme Court, where Webster’s Dictionary was heavily cited. The plaintiffs argued that according to the dictionary definition of fruit — the structure that grows from the flower of the plant and holds the seeds — a tomato was a fruit. They called two witnesses, both of whom heard the definitions of “fruit” and “vegetable” out of the dictionary and were asked whether those definitions were any different in the world of trade and commerce. Both talked for a while but said no, the definitions were no different. The counsel for the plaintiff then read the definition of tomato.
Each side then proceeded to read a series of Webster’s Dictionary definitions. The counsel for the defense read “egg plant,” “squash,” “pepper,” and “cucumber” — all of which, like tomato, are fruits in the botanical sense — but which are widely considered vegetables. In response, the counsel for the plaintiff read the definitions of “potato,” “turnip,” “parsnip,” “cauliflower,” “cabbage,” and “carrot,” none of them botanical fruits but all considered vegetables.
Justice Gray delivered the opinion of the Court, and he said: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”
Nix v. Hedden has been referenced in numerous cases since, including a 1990 Second Circuit Court of Appeals case about a delay in a tomato shipment. The judge wrote: “In common parlance tomatoes are vegetables, as the Supreme Court observed long ago, see Nix v. Hedden, although botanically speaking they are actually a fruit. Regardless of classification, people have been enjoying tomatoes for centuries, even Mr. Pickwick, as Dickens relates, ate his chops in ‘tomata’ sauce.”
The debate has continued, but the problem is that “vegetable” has no actual scientific or botanical definition — it is a culinary term. In 1987, the state of Arkansas designated the Vine Ripe Pink Tomato as their official state fruit and vegetable.
Tomatoes were slow to catch on in the United States — in 1845, the editor of the Boston Courier wrote that tomatoes were “the mere fungus of an offensive plant, which one cannot touch without an immediate application of soap and water with an infusion of eau de cologne … deliver us, O ye caterers of luxuries, ye gods and goddesses of the science of cookery! deliver us from tomatoes!” This opinion was echoed over and over again by journalists, agricultural experts, farmers, and gardeners across the country.
From The Writer’s Almanac, by Garrison Keillor