How the Tomato Became a Vegetable


A passing reference in last week's photo quiz noted that in 1893 the United States Supreme Court declared the tomato a vegetable. To botanists, the tomato always has been, and ever will be, a fruit. (See "Solve This UFO Mystery - Unidentified Fruity Objects," Jan. 27)

The idea of the Supreme Court deciding such a matter sounded too much like a scene from "Alice in Wonderland" to one reader: Debra Jones of Boston decided to research it.

Ms. Jones located a record of the arguments in the case of Nix v. Hedden. John Nix was a fruit importer (or so he thought). He sued New York customs collector Edward Hedden to recover duties "paid under protest" on the import of tomatoes from the West Indies. At the time, vegetables required a 10 percent tariff. Fruits were imported duty-free.

We thought you might enjoy imagining the scene at the court as the issue was argued, based on these excerpts from the court record:

"At the trial the plaintiff's counsel, after reading in evidence definitions of the words 'fruit' and 'vegetables' from Webster's Dictionary, Worcester's Dictionary, and the Imperial Dictionary, called two witnesses, who had been for 30 years in the business of selling fruit and vegetables....

"The plaintiff's counsel then read in evidence from the same dictionaries the definitions of the word 'tomato.' The defendant's counsel then read in evidence from Webster's Dictionary the definitions of the words 'pea,' 'egg plant,' 'cucumber,' 'squash,' and 'pepper.'

"The plaintiff then read in evidence from Webster's and Worcester's dictionaries the definitions of 'potato,' 'turnip,' 'parsnip,' 'cauliflower,' 'cabbage,' 'carrot,' and 'bean.'

"No other evidence was offered....

"Mr. Justice Gray ... delivered the opinion of the court: 'The single question in this case is whether tomatoes, considered as provisions, are to be classed as "vegetables" or as "fruit"....

" 'The only witnesses called at the trial testified that neither "vegetables" nor "fruit" had any special meaning in trade or commerce different from that given in the dictionaries, and that they had the same meaning in trade today that they had in March 1883.

" 'The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word "fruit" as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed. These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are "fruit," as distinguished from "vegetables," in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act....

" '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."

Nix lost. Tomatoes are vegetables because they are cooked and served the way vegetables usually are. For the full text, search for "Nix v. Hedden" at:

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