This past week I got all my tomato plants into the ground along with other warm-weather vegetables. Notice that I said vegetables. Not to court controversy, but it wasn’t until May 1893 that the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. The Supreme Court? Really? That seems so innocent compared to today’s Supreme Court controversies and decisions.
Botanically, a tomato is a fruit but I never considered it anything but a vegetable. Wikipedia calls it the “edible berry” of the tomato plant!
I don’t know that I have ever argued the point with someone. I have argued that tomato sauce is not gravy even if it contains the juice of meats, but that would be another case for the court or dining room table.
The case – Nix v. Hedden- was filed by John Nix and several other tomato importers against Edward Hedden, the Collector of Customs at the Port of New York. A 10-year-old piece of legislation called the Tariff Act of 1883 ruled that a 10 percent tax had to be paid on all imported vegetables and the case worked its way up to the Supreme Court.
They seem to have relied quite a bit on Webster’s Dictionary definitions on both sides. The dictionary definition of “fruit” – the structure that grows from the flower of the plant and holds the seeds – seems to favor a tomato as a fruit.
Dictionary definitions for “eggplant,” “squash,” “pepper,” and “cucumber” all are fruits in the botanical sense but are widely considered vegetables.
On the other side of the garden, the counsel for the plaintiff read the definitions of “potato,” “turnip,” “parsnip,” “cauliflower,” “cabbage,” and “carrot.” None of them are botanical fruits but they are considered vegetables.
Justice Gray gave the final opinion of the court “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.”
The controversy – at least legally – still gets some action. Nix v. Hedden was cited in a 1990 Second Circuit Court of Appeals case about a delay in a tomato shipment. The judge wrote that “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.”
Ask a botanist about “vegetables” and they will say that the word has no actual scientific or botanical definition. It is a culinary term.
Still, Arkansas, avoiding controversy, designated the Vine Ripe Pink Tomato as their official state fruit and vegetable in 1987.
In my New Jersey, the state fruit is the Northern highbush blueberry, but the state vegetable is our beloved Jersey tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum). There hasn’t been a summer of my life that I didn’t have fresh tomatoes from my backyard in this Garden State. There is nothing quite like picking a tomato and bringing it inside to slice and eat immediately. Cherry tomatoes are often picked and eaten right in the garden.
Tomatoes were not always popular in the United States.
“Tomatoes are 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!” – Boston Courier, 1845