Tomatoes Have Legally Been Vegetables Since 1893

Okay, so it’s technically a fruit. But we don’t eat it like one

Botanists might see fruit, but to a tariff collector, there's nothing but vegetables here. Flickr

Do you eat it for dessert? Fruit. Do you eat it for dinner? Vegetable. Problem solved.

In all the ways that matter to most consumers, tomatoes are not fruit. That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas,” he wrote. Score one for that irritating person we all know who insists that tomatoes are properly a fruit.

But he didn’t stop there: “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… 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.”

“Like a lot of America’s history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff,” writes Ethan Trex for Mental Floss. After Congress passed a tariff act that imposed a 10 percent tax on whole vegetables, vegetable merchants tried to bring in some tomatoes and not pay the tariff, arguing (as so many misguided souls have since) that tomatoes are, actually, a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, the collector at the port of New York, was having none of it, and charged the tomato-selling Nix family the tariff.

So they sued, and after six years of arguing, the case eventually made the Supreme Court. “Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case,” Trex writes. “Legally, things weren’t quite so open-and-shut.” Dictionaries were consulted. Produce merchants were called as expert witnesses.

But in the end, the defense’s argument of “sure, tomatoes were biologically a fruit, but for the purposes of trade and commerce—that is, the things covered by the Tariff Act of 1883—tomatoes were really vegetables,” won the day.

The Supreme Court unanimously supported this idea. We eat tomatoes like vegetables, not like fruit. But, like most tiresome arguments over pedantic details, the case was not closed in the public forum.

In 2005, the case was used in New Jersey during another prolonged argument. Lobbyists wanted the tomato named the state vegetable (which it eventually was.) Other states have taken different paths regarding the tomato’s identity, Trex writes: the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato is officially both the state fruit and the state vegetable, while in Tennessee, the tomato is the state fruit. Tomato juice is the state beverage in Ohio, but no word on where they stand in regards to the fruit-vegetable debate.

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