Today in History: The Tomato Surprise


Today in 1893, the US Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. The relevant case (Nix v. Hedden) involved tariffs -- the US had an import tariff on vegetables, but not fruit. So when a tomato importer (the Nix family) claimed that the tomato is a fruit and thus not subject to the tariff, the case ended up in front of the Supreme Court. Last year, our own Ethan Trex wrote an excellent article on the tomato debate, including this nugget:

...the Supreme Court unanimously found that tomatoes were vegetables. Justice Horace Gray admitted in his decision that while tomatoes were technically the fruit of a vine, they were always 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." In other words, unless people wanted to start capping a meal with tomato ice cream, tomatoes were for all intents and purposes vegetables and could be taxed as such. The Nix family wasn't getting its import duties back. Sound strange? Here's something that's even weirder: the Supreme Court actually had a precedent for a very similar issue. In his decision Justice Gray referenced a previous Supreme Court case, Robertson v. Salomon, in which Justice Joseph P. Bradley had written the opinion that beans were vegetables rather than seeds. In that 1892 decision, Bradley rebuffed the notion that beans were seeds: "We do not see why they should be classified as seeds, any more than walnuts should be so classified. Both are seeds, in the language of botany or natural history, but not in commerce nor in common parlance. On the other hand in speaking generally of provisions, beans may well be included under the term 'vegetables.' As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable, as well when ripe as when green. This is the principal use to which they are put."

So while tomatoes are technically fruit, for the purposes of US trade law, they're vegetables. Who knew?

Sesame Street puts it all in perspective:

Read more about Nix v. Hedden from FindLaw.