Field and Farm

Posted 7/8/18

Great Tomato Debate: vegetable or fruit? By DANNY L. CAINWalker County Extension CoordinatorLewis Grizzard, who in my opinion is the greatest …

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Field and Farm


Great Tomato Debate: vegetable or fruit?


Walker County Extension Coordinator

Lewis Grizzard, who in my opinion is the greatest of all the Southern humorist writers, once said something to the effect of “It is hard to have bad thoughts about anyone while you are eating a home grown tomato.” It’s certainly hard to find fault in that little bit of wisdom even as I slather a bit of mayonnaise and a pinch of salt between two pieces of loaf bread for yet another tomato sandwich supper.

From the old heirloom varieties such as Cherokee purple and Brandywine to the modern varieties such as big boy, better boy, Park’s whopper (and many others) to the newer more disease resistant varieties such as Bella Rosa, tomatoes have become a true staple in home gardens near and far. They come in every size, shape, and even color pattern that you could imagine. I am also fond of the smaller “grape” or “cherry” type tomatoes, which I love to grow in containers on my deck and pick and eat right off the vine just like blueberries.

Even though at the end of the day I guess it really doesn’t matter that much, I frequently get asked whether tomatoes are actually fruits or vegetables. This seems like a very easy question to answer; however, in reality it is not that clear cut. The Burpee company who arguably sells as many tomato seed to home gardeners as anyone labels their tomato seed packets as “vegetables” while the states of Tennessee and Ohio have designated tomatoes as their “state fruit.” New Jersey even named the tomato their “state vegetable.” My long-time buddy John even bet me lunch one time that tomatoes were actually fruit and not vegetables.  This debate is certainly not new, and we are certainly not the only ones that are confused in trying to classify tomatoes.  The debate once reached such a fevered pitch and was such an issue that the United States Supreme Court (yes the highest court in the land) weighed in on debate.

Way back in the late 1830’s in New York City, a man by the name of John Nix and his sons started the John Nix and Company who were among the earliest importers of fresh fruits and vegetables into the New York area. They quickly became one of the largest sellers of fruits in vegetables in New York and surrounding areas. Their business was highly successful (and profitable) and went unimpeded until 1883 when U.S. President Chester Arthur signed into law the Tariff Act of 1883. This action placed a tariff (or tax) on all vegetables imported into the United States while exempting imported fruits from the same tariffs.  John Nix reluctantly had no choice but to begin paying the tax on his imported tomatoes. To his credit, he did pay it but like most of us today he didn’t like it very much. John Nix and his company then filed a lawsuit against Edward Hedden who was at the time the collector of the Port of New York who was responsible for collecting the tariffs. The lawsuit asked for the return of all tariffs paid by the John Nix Company based upon the fact that tomatoes were actually fruits (and exempt from tariff) and that they were not vegetables.  For my many legal buddies out there, you can still find a lot of information on the Nix vs Hedden case.

After a lot of legal wrangling, the case actually made it all the way up to the Supreme Court. By botanical definition a fruit is the seed containing structure (and most definitions also include the surrounding tissue, pulp, etc) that is formed by the developing ovules of many plants. Many of the commonly planted garden and orchard crops including peaches, apples, squash, cucumbers, melons, and many others (and yes botanically that does include tomatoes) fall under this botanical definition of a fruit. Vegetables as botanically defined include other edible parts of a plant and include such things as potatoes, carrots, lettuce, broccoli, turnips and many others. The Supreme Court heard all of these definitions before rendering its decision.

May 10, 1893 was a very important day in tomato lore. The U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the defendants of the case and thus that Nix and Company were not entitled to receive back the tariffs that they had paid…. while at the same time legally declaring tomatoes to be vegetables. It is interesting to note that the Court recognized that tomatoes were fruits by the botanical definition; however, their decision was based on the fact that “Tomatoes are "vegetables" and not "fruit" within the meaning of the Tariff Act of 1883 based on the common meaning of those words. In essence that tomatoes were commonly consumed more like vegetables than fruits (you ever eat a peach sandwich?), and in accepted “common language” they were thought of as more vegetable than fruit despite the botanical definition. 

So whether you consider tomatoes to be fruits under the botanical definition or vegetables under the U.S. Supreme Court legal definition, there can be little debate about the fact that they are good for you. They are among the most favored of all home garden crops, and from sandwiches to sauces and relishes to one of the most beloved Southern dishes, fried green tomatoes – they taste great. My mom also used to make tomato dumplings (she really didn’t care whether they were fruits of vegetables).

Here is a link to a great publication called Backyard Tomato Production, which is available to download, view or print free of charge

Oh, by the way John, if you are reading this I offer the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court into evidence. I still haven’t forgotten about our bet and you still owe me lunch.