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American Tomatoes are Legally Vegetables

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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.

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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.

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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.


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