Tomato – Is it a Fruit or a Vegetable?
The Landmark Case that Decided the Fate of Our Favorite Vegetable—or Is It a Fruit?
John Nix was so committed to having the tomato classified as a fruit he filed a lawsuit.
The Manhattan wholesaler and his sons, John W. Nix, George W. Nix, and Frank W. Nix, were frustrated that imported vegetables were subject to a 10 percent tariff upon entering the United States, but no such tariffs were applied to fruits.
When he was slapped with the fee on a shipment of tomatoes arriving from the Caribbean, Nix claimed the tomatoes were fruits, not vegetables, and filed a lawsuit against Edward L. Hedden, a collector of the port of New York.
Although the initial suit was filed to allow Nix to recover back duties paid on previous shipments, it ended up changing how we think about tomatoes.
The Supreme Court heard Nix v. Heddenin 1893.
The proceedings were brief. Counsel for the plaintiff read into evidence dictionary definitions of the word “tomato” along with those of other fruits and vegetables, including “pea,” “eggplant,” “cucumber,” “cauliflower,” “carrot,” and “bean.” (The Merriam-Webster definition for “fruit” reads, “the usually edible reproductive body of a seed plant; especially : one having a sweet pulp associated with the seed,” and, “a succulent plant part… used chiefly in a dessert or sweet course.”
Based on the evidence presented, the Supreme Court justices found for the defendant, ruling that tomatoes were classified as vegetables. Nix was forced to continue paying import tariffs on tomatoes.
Justice Horace Gray, one of the justices presiding over the case, delivered the opinion of the court that read, in part, “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.”
Andrew F. Smith, tomato historian and author of The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture and Cookery, believes the court case makes a great story because it pits botany against the law. It also made a bold public statement about tomatoes. “People wanted tomatoes. The goal of the legislation was to convince farmers to grow tomatoes instead of importing them,” he explains. “It was a significant case at the time, important enough to go to the Supreme Court, and every newspaper in the country covered it. The tomato got a lot of great visibility.”
The discussion of whether a tomato was a fruit or vegetable resurfaced in 1937 as the League of Nations classified produce to apply tariffs. Again, the tomato was relegated to the vegetable column, appearing under vegetables/edible plants/roots and tubers.
The United Nations Standard International Trade Classification continues including tomatoes in the vegetable category to the present day.