The Case of the Tomato

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.

tomato 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

Tomato: Fruit and Vegetable

tomato seedling

I’m tending my young tomato plants today in preparation for them going into the ground. It is still cool in Paradelle – frost-free but still some 40 and 50 degrees nights and days. I’m a jersey boy and I grew up growing tomatoes in that Garden State in every year I can remember.

My father showed me how to plant seeds in flats the month before the last predicted frost. I didn’t like plucking out tiny seedlings in order to keep the best ones. I wanted every seedling to produce tomatoes, but that isn’t the way it works in a backyard garden.

I learned to dig big holes, add composted manure, plant the seedling deep. I didn’t like putting them in so deep that they looked like such tiny plants. they went in all the way to the first main leaves so they would send out deep roots and not shallow roots that could easily burn in the hots days of Juky and August. We left a bowl-like depression to catch the water. We covered them with modified milk cartons to keep away cutworms, discourage invaders and protect for those first cool nights.

Today’s podcast of The Writer’s Almanac  (which is primarily about writers and literature but often takes little diversions – as many writers do when they should be writing) coincidentally had a segment about tomatoes.

It was on this day in 1893 that the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. The Tariff Act of 1883 said that a 10 percent tax had to be paid on all imported vegetables. The importers 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. The government read the definitions of “eggplant,” “squash,” “pepper,” and “cucumber” — all of which, like tomato, are fruits in the botanical sense — but which are considered vegetables.

Justice Gray delivered the opinion of the Court: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, but in the common language of the people, they are vegetables which are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

sliced red tomatoes

I knew most of that, but it struck me that the real problem was that “vegetable” has no actual scientific or botanical definition. It is a culinary term.

Tomatoes have always been for me a vegetable because that was the way we treated them in our home. But there is one exception to that.  When I am in the garden in summer, weeding, staking, looking for pests and watering, I can’t help but pick a very red and ripe tomato and biting into it in the same way I would eat an apple, peach or plum from the trees in my childhood backyard.  No tomato tastes better than those. And some are “grape cherry tomatoes” their shape and size suggesting that other fruit.

As I am typing this, I can see my seedlings outside in their tray with a net cover. I also see two squirrels running around the yard and a rabbit snooping by the deck wondering about when my plants will be set into the ground. And that reminds me of a poem by a teacher I once had in a summer workshop. here is an excerpt from “Blue with Collapse” by Thomas Lux.

It’s spring, the blooming branches
nearly hide the many dead ones.
A squirrel, digging for a nut, upends my frail
tomato plant and fails
to replant it, even though he has the tools.
I find this kind of squirrely oblivion everywhere.