Skip to main content

American Tomatoes are Legally Vegetables

Image result for tomatoes

An oft-repeated expression you hear in America goes, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put on in a fruit salad.”  This is true in America and many other countries: however a tomato might be classified scientifically, it’s treated as a vegetable in cuisine.  Since a tomato is developed in the ovary of the flower of the tomato plant, it’s technically a fruit.  Fruits contain the seeds of the plant, which is why apples and oranges are fruits, like cherries, blueberries and grapes, and even beans and some nuts.  Since more people tend to engage in cooking and not botany, referring to a tomato as a fruit will only upset the most dedicated pedant.

There was a time when few people (besides botanists) gave this matter much thought.  Due to its savory flavor, tomatoes were referred to throughout the United States as vegetables.  The tomato was native to Central America and northwestern South America, and following a long period of time when they were thought to be poisonous, the tomato had become a staple in American cuisine.  

The trouble started in 1883.  In order to protect domestic farmers, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883.  This act was written by the lame duck Republican Congress.  Republicans favored tariffs in general, and were afraid that the incoming Democratic Congress would make deep cuts in tariffs, so preëmptively, the Republicans cut tariffs by a smaller amount.  Tariffs were lowered by roughly 1.4%, with some tariffs dropping precipitously, some actually rising, and none of it making any sense.

One tariff that this act raised was on imported vegetables.  This included tomatoes, of course.  This was much to the dismay of John Nix & Co., one of America’s largest produce importers at the time.  The tariff only singled out vegetables and not fruit.  The Port of New York started collecting duties on Nix’s (and everyone else’s) tomatoes on March 3, 1883.  Nix & Co. took it up with Edward L. Hedden, Collector of the Port of New York, America’s largest and busiest port.  The matter would be settled in the courts.

Image result for john nix fruit
A stencil used to mark Nix & Co.'s fruit crates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Nix & Co. took Hedden to court to get his port fees back, and to make sure the tomato would be exempted from this tariff in the future.  Nix’s argument was the botanical one, that the tomato was technically a fruit, so it couldn’t be taxed like one.  Hedden’s team countered with the argument that since the tomato is used as a vegetable in cooking, and since in common language it is referred to as a vegetable and not as a fruit, it should be considered a fruit.

This case went on for years.  Rulings went against Nix, which he appealed, moving the case up to higher courts.  Frequently, Hedden’s team cited not scientists but dictionaries to make its case, stating that whatever botanists say, tomatoes are, in common parlance and common culinary practice, vegetables.  Finally, on May 10, 1893, just over ten years after the tariff was passed, the Supreme Court made its ruling.  The unanimous decision, delivered by Justice Horace Gray, read as follows:

“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.” 

In the end, after Nix & Co.’s many days in court, a decision was reached: the tomato is a vegetable, and if you import them, you have to pay the tax.  Legally, the tomato remains a vegetable in the United States to this very day.  Nix vs. Hedden was cited in several subsequent cases as a precedent in determining the common meanings of things by using dictionary definitions.  In the 1980s, the Reagan administration stirred up controversy when its school lunch plan treated ketchup as a vegetable, and thus stated that if a child is eating ketchup, that counts as a serving of vegetables.  In 2005, members of the New Jersey state legislature cited Nix vs. Hedden as precedent when voting to make the tomato the official state vegetable.

Image result for horace grayRelated image
Justice Horace Gray (left) says the tomato is not a fruit.  The cover of an 1885 issue of Puck says that Edward Hedden is not the most honest man.

The next time someone points out that the tomato is actually a fruit, feel free to gently correct them (as long as you’re on American soil).  You can insist that it’s a vegetable, and the law—as well as the language—is on your side.


Popular posts from this blog

Alcock and Brown: The First Transatlantic Flight

Since his celebrated landing in Paris 90 years ago, we often hear of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  He flew solo, taking off from Roosevelt Field in Brooklyn and landing in Le Bourget field in Paris after a flight of 33½ hours in his cramped, lightweight plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis.  Lindbergh was one of several individuals or teams who were competing for the Orteig Prize: a $25,000 purse offered to the first to fly from New York to Paris, offered by wealthy New York hotelier Raymond Orteig.  Lindbergh took off and landed perfectly, and managed to navigate the whole way without getting lost.  This was quite a feat in the days before computers to aid navigation, or the elaborate system of air traffic control that would come into being, once commercial airlines started to develop.  What Lindbergh did immediately made him an international hero and a household name for years after, with streets and buildings and yes, airports, named after him.  To this day, Charles …

The Halley's Comet Panic of 1910

If you were around in 1986, you might remember the excitement surrounding the return of Halley’s Comet.  Halley’s Comet hadn’t been seen since 1910, and 76 years later, it was getting ready to make another pass by Earth.  Many who were excited probably wound up feeling a little disappointed. I’ll admit I was. I was sixteen, and was eager to see a bright ball in the sky with a burning tail lighting up the night.  All we got to see was a small, faint, comet-shaped light in the sky. It turned out that in 1986, the comet passed when the Earth was on the other side of the sun, so there wasn’t much to look at. We knew it was coming, though.  We’ve known this since 1705, when Edmond Halley predicted the comet would return on Christmas night, 1758.  Halley died in 1742, so he never got to see that he was correct—but he was correct. Halley’s calculations show that the comet will pass by Earth every 74 to 79 years, and these passes are predictable. When Halley’s Comet isn’t near Earth, …