The tomato: fruit or vegetable?

posted by John

Most of us know that the scientific classification of the tomato is that it is a fruit. But, of course, we also know that it’s not quite like an orange, an apple, or a plum. I once heard it said:

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is never putting it in a fruit salad.

What does that statement actually mean? If we unpack it just a little bit, we get something like the following: that although we know technically speaking, tomatoes are the juicy, seed-bearing part of the plant, and that makes them a fruit, we nevertheless consider them to be vegetables (and thus a better part of, say, a garden salad than a fruit salad).

It turns out that the United States Supreme Court agrees. And in 1893, ten years after the Tariff Act of 1883 was passed, they were called on to decide the question as a legal matter. The tariff was to be imposed on the importation of vegetables, but not on fruits, so when John Nix was forced to pay duties on tomatoes he imported from the West Indies, he sued. This is what the Court found:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine . . . 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 v. HEDDEN, 149 U.S. 304 (1893))

What the Court took to be the true meaning of the word ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ did not turn on its technical definition. It turned, rather, on its common usage: because it is widely understood to function more like a veggie than a fruit, the tomato should be considered a vegetable for the purposes of the tariff.

In some ways, this makes sense. The Court was deciding how the tomato should be treated with respect to a tariff on vegetable imports. Thus if something is widely treated as a vegetable in terms of its economic use (garden but not fruit salads), then perhaps it makes good sense to treat it as such within the confines of the tariff. This was the Court’s reasoning, at least, and I generally think I agree with it. But come on; in other ways, it’s utter madness! If something is a fruit, it’s a fruit. Mass misunderstanding of that fact doesn’t make it less true.

This conflict is related to Sandeep’s earlier post about Humpty Dumpty and the meaning of language—language doesn’t mean whatever we decide we want it to. But as Nix v. Hedden shows, our opinions and common conceptions of words nevertheless matter. To some extent, conventional meaning really determines literal meaning.

As a former anti-vegetable child, I like that, and I think it gives hope to future generations of vegetable-averse kids: with a little persistence, maybe someday apples will count too.

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