Tomato — Fruit Or Vegetable?

- May 10th, 2013

tomato

I know, I know — it’s not an argument worth having.

Fortunately, we don’t have to because the Supreme Court of the United States resolved the issue with a unanimous decision exactly 120 years ago — to the day — on May 10, 1893.

 

Technically — botanically, I should say — the tomato is a fruit because it’s the “seed-bearing structure growing from the flowering part of a plant,” to quote Wikipedia. It is, in fact, the external ovary of the plant, like all fruit.

 

But it’s not the kind of fruit you’re going to slice up on a bowl of ice cream. Yuck. We all know the tomato is really a vegetable, whatever it’s technical classification.

 

(Cucumbers, green beans, eggplants, peppers, squash and zucchini are also botanically fruits that are really vegetables. Pumpkins, too, but they’re sort of a grey zone — pumpkin pie and all.)

 

The Supreme Court of the United States, however, did not bring its magisterial might to bear on cucumbers, green beans, eggplants, peppers, squash or zucchini. But the mighty justices did focus all their legal intellect on the lovely tomato and concluded that …

 

But wait a minute.

 

First you have to know how the tomato came to be an object of interest for the Supreme Court of the United States in the first place.

 

The tomato, relative of the deadly nightshade plant and mildly toxic potato, is a native of the Americas, introduced by the Spanish conquistadors to Europe, where it was being grown by the 1540s.

 

Some early varieties of tomatoes were far more toxic than the strains we’re now accustomed to, so in those early days the tomato was grown primarily in flower gardens and used ornamentally as exotic table decoration by Spanish, Italian and French nobles.

 

Gradually the edible and inedible varieties of tomatoes — much like mushrooms — were sorted out and the tomato was an increasingly popular part of Mediterranean cuisine by 1700.

 

The British eventually accepted the tomato and from there it bounced back across the Atlantic to the English-speaking colonies of North America.

 

The Spanish had also introduced the tomato to their colony in the Philippines, from whence it spread throughout Asia. (Today China produces about a third of all the tomatoes grown in the world, with the U.S., India, Turkey and Egypt producing another third and the rest of the world combining for the final third.)

 

Now let’s jump ahead to 1883 when the U.S. Congress passed an omnibus tariff act which — among many other stupid, nonsensical things — placed a tax on imported vegetables but not on imported fruit. (Aha! You see where this is going now, don’t you?)

 

A few years later New York City produce wholesaler John Nix and Company brought in a shipment of green tomatoes from Bermuda and had the new 10% duty for imported vegetables slapped on the shipment by local tax collector Edward Hedden.

 

The Nix family paid the import duty but promptly filed suit to recover the payment because — as we all know — tomatoes are technically/botanically fruit, not vegetables.

 

It took another half-decade for the case — known as Nix v. Hedden — to work its way through the U.S. judicial system to the Supreme Court.

 

Expert witnesses were called, dictionary definitions were hashed and rehashed and, in the end, the Supreme Court settled on common sense to make its unanimous decision.

Horacegrayphoto

Justice Horace Gray wrote the decision which said tomatoes were almost always served and eaten “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.”

 

Unbelievable. The Supreme Court of the United States was deciding whether the lowly tomato was a fruit or vegetable based of when it was served during a meal … at a time when the court’s plate was already full with some of the most vexing legal issues of the day — issues like busting up the railway, sugar and oil monopolies (a mixed record), segregation (“separate but equal” laws, which the Supreme Court ignominiously upheld), income tax (which the Supreme Court declared illegal in 1895) and even the issue of polygamy in the Mormon Church (the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. government and justice system had the right to intervene in religious practice).

 

So there you have it: Botany be damned — for the purposes of taxation, the tomato is a vegetable, not a fruit, according to the Supreme Court of the United States. It went on the record with that decision exactly 120 years ago today.

 

Thankfully no one’s ever asked them to rule on the correct pronunciation — “to-MAY-to” or “to-MAH-to.”

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