The Supreme Court Legally Made Tomatoes a Vegetable Years Ago, So Deal With It

Image via the AP.
Image via the AP.

The government has been chipping away at our sense of reality for years, and they’ve even gotten into the sauce. The tomato sauce.


Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post has written an explainer article about how tomatoes came to be classified as vegetables (though they most certainly are not) via a Supreme Court case in 1893 called Nix v. Hedden. No more philosophical meanderings about the nature of the tomato, which has seeds, yet is not sweet. The cold hard facts must be accepted. And as with many cold hard facts, the issue really came down to money:

At the time of the court case in question, Nix v. Hedden, fruits and vegetables differed in another big way, as well: Imported vegetables were slapped with a 10-percent tariff upon their arrival in the United States, and imported fruits were not.

When one Manhattan wholesaler — John Nix & Co., owned by John Nix and his four sons — got hit with the tariff on a shipment of Caribbean tomatoes, he disputed the tax on the grounds that tomatoes were not technically vegetables.

Nix and his four large adult sons took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled with the logic of their taste buds rather than actual taxonomy. They declared that people did not prepare or eat tomatoes the same way they do something like an apple. (Guess they never met my grandmother.) By that standard, they were vegetables. Duh.

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas,” wrote Justice Horace Gray in his 1893 opinion. “But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables.”

Recordings from the case are quite funny, as it seems to be mostly people reading the definitions of various fruits and vegetables from the dictionary:

The plaintiff’s counsel then read in evidence from the same dictionaries the definitions of the word ‘tomato.’[149 U.S. 304, 306] The defendant’s counsel then read in evidence from Webster’s Dictionary the definitions of the words ‘pea,’ ‘egg plant,’ ‘cucumber,’ ‘squash,’ and ‘pepper.’

The plaintiff then read in evidence from Webster’s and Worcester’s dictionaries the definitions of ‘potato,’ ‘turnip,’ ‘parsnip,’ ‘cauliflower,’ ‘cabbage,’ ‘carrot,’ and ‘bean.’

No other evidence was offered by either party.

Dewey notes that the Nix case came at a time when importing and exporting exotic fruits and vegetables to different countries was hot business. Their company did quite well despite the tomato tariffs, expanding into the 20th century; when Nix’s adult son John Nix Jr. died in 1922, they’d just opened a second office in Chicago.


The tomato’s inaccurate designation was further solidified in 1937, when the League of Nations attempted to coordinate tariffs by classifying various fruits and vegetables. You can guess where tomatoes ended up: under “vegetables/edible plants/roots and tubers.” Edible plants?! Really, that could be anything! And apparently anything you put on a pizza is considered a vegetable as well. In fact, as we learned from the Reagan years, you could even argue that ketchup is a vegetable! Tell your doctor.

Contributing Writer, writing my first book for the Dial Press called The Lonely Hunter, follow me on Twitter @alutkin



Knowledge is knowing tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to use it on a pie. - or something like that, right?