Tomatoes: Fruit or vegetable?

Tomatoes: Fruit or vegetable?

“Well, you know, a tomato is actually a fruit, not a vegetable.”

We’ve all encountered that wiseguy somewhere along the line — heck, some of us probably have trotted out that line at parties, meetings, or after running out of things to say about the weather. 

And it’s true, of course; botanically speaking, tomatoes are a fruit, as are peppers, squash, cucumbers, eggplant and a whole host of other produce items we typically refer to as vegetables. 

So why are tomatoes singled out in popular culture for this “actually a fruit” status? And why is it such a big deal, anyway?

To answer that, we need to go back 130+ years, to when President Chester Arthur signed the Tariff Act of 1883. The act required a tax on imported vegetables, but not on imported fruits. 

Enter New York produce firm John Nix & Co. John Nix was one of the city’s major fruit and vegetable companies at the time, and a pioneer in bringing produce from Florida, Virginia and Bermuda to New York. (At one time, the company even owned a steamer vessel called the Far Key, which it used to import onions and other crops from Bermuda, according to the Fruit Trade Journal, Dairy and Produce Record).

After President Arthur signed the tariff act into law, John Nix & Co. filed suit against Edward Hedden, the customs collector of the Port of New York, to try to get back tax duties paid under protest. The company said the act applied to vegetables, while tomatoes were fruits, from a botanical standpoint.

So why are tomatoes singled out in popular culture for this “actually a fruit” status? And why is it such a big deal, anyway?

Once that can of worms had been opened, lawyers for John Nix & Co. and Edward Hedden took turns reading various dictionary definitions of words like “fruit,” “vegetables,” “tomato,” “pea”, “eggplant,” “cucumber, squash,” “pepper,” “potato,” “turnip,” “parsnip,” “cauliflower,” “cabbage,” “carrot” and “bean,” trying to sway the justices of the Supreme Court that tomatoes were — or were not — a fruit.

The court unanimously decided that tomatoes, for the purposes of commerce, should be classified as a vegetable, based on how people commonly perceived and consumed them at the time (eating them during a meal, rather than as a dessert).

Justice Horace Gray, in writing the court’s opinion, also clarified — just in case anyone was wondering — that cucumbers, squash, peas and beans were also vegetables from the standpoint of commerce.

Maybe that’s why no one ever pipes up and says “But cucumbers are actually a fruit!”

Time-hop back to the present and vegetables are becoming a bit more popular in desserts (celery granita or carrot cookies, anyone?), but I doubt anyone will be resurrecting Nix v. Hedden over a batch of tomato ice cream anytime soon.

Still, the next time someone asks you whether tomatoes are a fruit or vegetable, take the easy route and just say “Yes.”

Amelia Freidline is The Packer’s designer and copy chief. E-mail her at afreidline@farmjournal.com.

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