Though technically fruit, tomatoes fall under the category of “vegetable,” according to the Supreme Court.
The high court issued this 1893 tomato ruling in a case brought by members of the Nix family against Edward Hedden, collector at the Port of New York, to recover the fees they spent transporting tomatoes.
The Nixes sued under the Tariff of 1883, which required taxes on imported vegetables – but not fruit.
Botanically, any seed-bearing structure formed from an angiosperm’s (a flowering plant’s) ovary is a fruit. Since a tomato protects and contains the seeds of its host plant, the juicy sphere is technically a fruit. Some might be shocked to learn a zucchini is a fruit, too.
General or culinary classifications, however, tend to differ from the botanical one. Most people would consider a tomato a vegetable. And the court essentially gave that reasoning in Nix v. Hedden: A tomato is a vegetable because people think it is.
The arguments were short and simple. The defendant’s counsel read definitions from Webster’s Dictionary of “pea,” “eggplant,” “cucumber,” “squash,” and “pepper” as evidence.
The plaintiff then did the same (adding Worcester’s Dictionary) with the definitions of “potato,” “turnip,” “parsnip,” “cauliflower,” “cabbage,” “carrot,” and “bean.” Technically, a bean is a legume, but it too falls under the category of vegetable in everyday speech.
The court unanimously decided that the scientific classification of a tomato doesn’t change common language. Therefore, the Tariff Act intended to tax tomatoes. And the Nix family wouldn’t get their money back. The opinion of the court read:
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.
The U.S. government abandoned the Tariff of 1833 for the Black Tariff of 1842, which the Walker Tariff later replaced. But the court’s ruling on tomatoes’ classification still stands and continues to affect legal proceedings. Other Supreme Court cases, like Saltonstall v. Wiebusch & Hilger and Cadwalader v. Zeh, have cited Nix v. Hedden, usually pertaining to payment of back taxes.