Why Tomatoes are Vegetables

May 10, 1893 was an odd day in Food History here in the United States. It was on that day that the legal case of Nix v. Hedden was decided, a case that helped legally, if not botanically, define what constitutes a “fruit” or a “vegetable” in the United States of America.

The case was brought about due to the Tariff act of 1883, which required that taxes were to be paid on imported vegetables, but not upon imported fruit. John Nix and various members of his family owned an import business, of which one of the products imported happened to be tomatoes brought in from the West Indies. After several years of paying taxes under chapter 121 of the tariif act of March 3, 1883 (imposing a duty on ‘vegetables in their natural state, or in salt or brine, not specially enumerated or provided for in this act, ten per centum ad valorem), the Nixes felt that the tomatoes were being improperly charged with tariffs, contending that the botanical fruit should be held under the act which stipulated that “Fruits, green, ripe, or dried, not specially enumerated or provided for in this act”.

The Nixes brought action against the tariff collector of the port of New York, one Edward L. Hedden, on February 4, 1887, then waited for their day in court.

Unfortunately for them, when their day in court arrived, evidence of definitions were brought in, not by botanists, but rather by dictionaries. The only witnesses called were sellers of produce, who were asked if the definitions supplied by the dictionaries were any different than the definitions used on the job. Their answer? No.

The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word ‘fruit’ as the seed of plaints, or that part of plaints 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.

There being no evidence that the words ‘fruit’ and ‘vegetables’ have acquired any special meaning in trade or commerce, they must receive their ordinary meaning.

The “ordinary meaning” was the defined as food “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.”

Which means that legally, fruits that are commonly served as dinner items can be called vegetables, at least when it comes to trade and commerce. This is why you see these tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes and peppers all sold as vegetables, even though they are fruit.

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