The time the Supreme Court ruled if a tomato was a fruit or a vegetable

Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? It’s one of the world’s great dilemmas. You’ll have heard it before, you’ll hear it again and you’ll already know that tomatoes are fruits, right? Well, back in 1893, this conundrum was put to the Supreme Court of the United States, and their answer might surprise you…

tomato fruit or vegetable

It seems a long way removed from the colossal decisions made by the Supreme Court in recent years, but over 130 years aho they were also causing controversy, admittedly to a far lesser extent.

The reason this peculiar matter came to the court was to do with tariffs. Back in the 19th century, vegetables faced a 10% import tax, while fruits faced no such charge. Hence, one New York-based fruit importer called John Nix saw his chance and claimed that since tomatoes were technically fruits, he should not be paying any tax on them. 

supreme court tomato fruit or vegetable
The Supreme Court of the United States.

The case in question became known as Nix v. Hedden. It was first filed in 1887, and six years later made its way to the highest court in the land. 

In the end, the deciding opinion was written by Justice Horace Gray of Massachusetts. He said: “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.”

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Masterfully put, Justice Gray. Technically it’s a fruit, but socially, and crucially legally, it’s not. So Nix and his four sons at the helm of Nix & Co. had to pay their import tariff. It didn’t do the company much harm, as records show that by 1922 they had expanded to have a Chicago hub as well as New York.

Horace Gray supreme court tomato fruit or vegetable
Horace Gray (Credit: Wikimedia and Cleveland Museum of Art)

Despite the Supreme Court’s judgment, the jury is still out in America. Take the states of Tennessee and Ohio, which decided the tomato was their state fruit. New Jersey, on the other hand, made the tomato their state vegetable, specifically citing the Supreme Court case. Everyone will have their own opinion…

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