The Supreme Court Archives: Are Tomatoes a Fruit or Vegetable?

By Bryce Wachtell (PO ’21)

The U.S. Supreme Court answers many questions of serious importance: what are the limits of free speech? Are LGBTQ Americans protected against discrimination? Do corporations have constitutional rights? But, at times, the questions that face the court can seem far more trivial, thought no less consequential. Such is the case in Nix v. Hedden, which forced the court to definitively decide whether a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit, and in doing so, whether judges should follow the letter or spirit of law.

The case, decided on May 12th, 1893, was brought against the New York port collector, who enforced the perceived directions of a 1883 tariff which required that imported vegetables be taxed at ten percent. Fruits, notably, were exempt from the tariff. The John Nix Fruit Co., which imported tomatoes from the West Indies, sought to recover the money they were taxed on their produce in the spring of 1886. The case centered around the age-old question: are tomatoes vegetables—subject to the 10% tariff—or fruits—exempt from it?

The Nix family’s lawyer read to the court the definitions of “fruit,” “vegetable,” and “tomato” as written in three dictionaries at the time. The defense countered by reading the definitions of “squash,” “eggplant,” and “pepper.” It was an odd day in D.C.

Speaking in strict botanic terms, a tomato is a fruit, as it contains the fleshy, pulpy, seed-bearing portion of the plant. To that same end, cucumbers, squashes, and peas are technically fruit. But speaking colloquially, tomatoes (like cucumbers, squashes, and peas) are generally considered vegetables. Common parlance and botanic definitions conflicted in 1893 as they do today. And so this otherwise trivial question became one of much greater importance: when definitions are contested, where should the law source its definition? And, moreover, is the court to consider the letter of the law, or the spirit of it?

The court ruled in favor of the spirit of the law, positing that commerce and common parlance take precedence over definitions grounded in botany or natural history. In short, a tomato—in the eyes of the Supreme Court—is a vegetable.

As Justice Horace Grey wrote in the unanimous opinion, “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a 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… 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.” In other words, common parlance and general perception of a definition are more authoritative than a dictionary. As Justice Grey say it, a tomato is a vegetable because it cannot be had as dessert.  

The implications of this decision reach well beyond the dinner table. For instance, are stuff-pillows shaped like animals still actually pillows? Or are they stuffed animals that incidentally can be used as pillows? The difference, though trivial, matters; imported pillows are taxed, but imported stuffed animals are not.

Legal precedence forms a complex mosaic that grounds our every litigative action today. The cases that underpin this mosaic often become famous for their glamorous, revolutionary rulings; they are so prolific in the collective American memory that their lengthy names are boiled down to catchy titles like Roe, Brown, and Citizens United. But there lies an array of cases that, though fundamental to this mosaic, fail to garner the same attention, like Nix v. Hedden. The humorous case did far more than simply determine whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable; it determined whether the court should follow the letter of the law or the spirit of it.

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