An 1883 tariff act required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. The Nix family, tomato entrepreneurs, went to court to recover back duties paid to the Port of New York under protest, claiming that they owed nothing because, botanically, a tomato is a fruit, a seed-bearing structure growing from the flowering part of a plant. The case made it to the Supreme Court where, on May 10, 1893, the justices unanimously ruled that, botany be damned, a tomato is a vegetable.
At the hearing, both the plaintiffs’ counsel and the defendant’s counsel made extensive use of dictionaries. The plaintiffs’ counsel read in evidence the definitions of the word tomato, while the defendant’s counsel read the definitions of the words pea, eggplant, cucumber, squash, and pepper. In a clear case of one-upmanship, the plaintiff then read in evidence the definitions of potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot and bean.
The court decided in favor of the defense and found that the tomato should be classified under the customs regulations as a vegetable, based on the ways in which it is used, and the popular perception to this end. Justice Horace Gray, in a horticultural burst of logic, stated that:
“The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word ‘fruit’ as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed. These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are ‘fruit,’ as distinguished from ‘vegetables,’ in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.”
He acknowledged that botanically, tomatoes are classified as a “fruit of the vine”; nevertheless, they are seen as vegetables because they were usually eaten as a main course instead of being eaten as a dessert. In making his decision, Justice Gray brought up another case in which the court found that although a bean is botanically a seed, in common parlance a bean is seen as a vegetable. While on the subject, Gray clarified the status of the cucumber, squash, pea, and turnip for good measure.
It would take another century to declare ketchup a vegetable.