Tomatoes: Fruit or Vegetable? You Be the Judge

Growing tomatoes has been one of my favorite pastimes in my adult life—a hobby that has nourished me personally and is richly rewarding to share with my family and friends.

Life most home gardeners, I used to select the variety of tomatoes I grew based on what commercial seeds were available at the local garden shop. These were usually the most popular hybrid varieties distributed by the nation’s largest seed suppliers. I considered myself fortunate if my selection included a couple of early-season varieties, two or three beefsteaks, a paste, and a cherry tomato. Life was simple then—if not narrow—considering my limited experience with tomatoes. And then I discovered heirloom tomatoes.

I was introduced to the exciting and flavorful world of heirloom tomatoes by an elderly Portuguese gentleman who, upon retiring, spent most of his last years in his garden. He delighted in generously sharing his harvest with curious neighbors seduced into his bountiful backyard. He patiently impressed upon me the importance of healthy soil and proper nutrients to produce the tastiest of tomatoes and started sending me home with some of his extra seedlings. With names like Costoluto Genovese and Old Flame, these tomatoes date back generations and come from all parts of the world; seeds were handed down from family member to family member because the quality and taste of the fruit were considered precious heirlooms.

And so my passion for growing tomatoes began. Since my growing space was limited, I would plant tomato seedlings anywhere that had adequate sunlight, often along the whole southern exposure of my house. With vines tied to the rain gutters, every window of the house was covered in a tapestry of tomatoes by midseason. At harvest time, I would invite a few friends who shared my passion for the old-fashioned tomato flavors to a “tasting.” Many were professional chefs who were equally excited about these rediscovered flavors and explored them with originality in their tomato dishes.

And so it began. First with 10 guests; then each year thereafter, as the world spread to others in the community, the size of the tasting expanded, along with the number of tomato dishes that guests contributed.

One of the two questions I get asked most often is: ‘Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?’

I began finding seeds that were considered favorite old varieties from around the world, including Asia, Europe, and many regions throughout the Americas. The tastings grew so large that I decided to share the event with the public. As a charity fundraiser that I named “TomatoFest,” more and more friends, families, and chefs could experience the tasting of heirloom tomatoes and recipes.

Through years of producing these wonderful heirloom tomatoes and the immensely popular TomatoFests, one recurring question has haunted me: “Gary, where’s the book?” Well, here it is: The Great Tomato Book.

Fruit or Vegetable? You Be the Judge . . .

One of the two questions I get asked most often is: “Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?” (The other is: “Why don’t tomatoes taste like they used to?” I’ll deal with that answer later.) I usually respond with, “What do you like to call it?” I wait for the person to reply either “fruit” or “vegetable” and answer, “You’re right.” Scientifically speaking, the tomato is a fruit because it develops from a botanical ovary, the enlarged portion of the pistil that contains the ovules, or egg cells.

Legally speaking, it functions as a vegetable because it’s generally not served as a dessert and our government can raise revenue with it classified as such while financially protecting our farmers. I’m not kidding—this is what US Supreme Court Associate Justice Horace Gray said in 1893: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumber, squash, 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 . . . are usually served at dinner in, with or after soup, fish, or meats . . . and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

The classification of tomatoes became an issue for the US Supreme Court following a dispute between John Nix, a tomato importer who claimed the tomato was a fruit, and a US customs agent at the Port of New York, who considered it a vegetable and therefore subject to tariff. Under the Tariff Act of 1883, in a move to protect American farmers from competition, a 10 percent import tax was levied on vegetables while fruits remained duty-free.

In spite of Justice Gray’s decision, the tomato has found more and more creative and tasty ways to appear in desserts. As testimony to this, you’ll find some wonderful recipes for tomato-based desserts in The Great Tomato Book.


This was originally published in The Great Tomato Book by Gary Ibsen and Joan Nielson