When The Supreme Court Decided if the Tomato was a Fruit or Vegetable

During the 20 years of serving on the Supreme Court, Justice Horace Gray has ruled on huge issues from racial segregation to the constitution of having a federal income tax. Gray has wrote over 450 opinions while serving on the Supreme Court. In 1893, the Bostonian was supposed issue an opinion on something that people still argue with today. The huge legal question was whether the law should see tomatoes as vegetables or fruits.

Known to those smart botanist people as Solanum lycoperscium–how this came to the doors of the Supreme Court is a juicy story that can be traced to the early 1900s.

Tomato growers in the South built a big trade in shipping produce to the North. After the Civil War put a pause to the trade, Northern states started to import tomatoes and other vegetables, from the Bahamas and neighboring islands. After the Civil War, Southerners in the produce trade wanted back their lucrative business back. They put pressure on the government to put a tariff on any imported vegetables and in 1883 Congress agreed.

The Tariff Act of 1883 only put tax on vegetables that were in “their natural state, or in salt or brine, not specially enumerated or provided for in this act, ten per centum ad valorem”. What was exempted from the 10 percent tax were “fruits, green, ripe or dried””. This new law was satisfying to the tomato growers but had the opposite effect for the tomato importers. So in 1886, the biggest wholesalers at the time, the Nix family, whipped up a family plot to get around the law.

That same Spring, the family imported a lot of green tomatoes from Bermuda and paid the import tax. They started to draw up a lawsuit against the official who was in charge of enforcing the tariffs at the Port of New York. When the Nixes filed in 1887, the case began a slow progression which eventually leads up to Justice Gray’s desk in the Supreme Court.

The lawsuit came to a quick stop at the U.S. Circuit Court in the Southern District of New York. Plaintiffs explained that tomatoes were fruits by the definition of botanists, and vegetables were considered leaves, roots, stems, instead of seeds and an ovary. Dictionary pages were probably very worn out after this case. Argument after argument, the verdict was good news to the defendant.

This was a big disappointment for the Nixes, and also Botanical Science.

Turns out the lines between vegetables and fruits are somewhat blurred. The tomato is undoubtedly a fruit botanically, but also considered a vegetable according to Craig Andersen, horticulture specialist at the University of Arkansas. This means they are basically dual citizens and can’t just be classified as one or the other.

Justice Horace Gray resolved this by stating that even though tomatoes may be fruits scientifically, they are widely considered as vegetables to most people.

Even though the Supreme Court has classified tomatoes as technically vegetables, the argument is still something you will see today. By law the tomato is a vegetable. Botanists still argue it’s a fruit. It’s believe by most botanists that science was ignored and the focus was just on the culinary use. Horticulture specialist Anderson states “Somebody did not grease the right palms.”

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