Wednesday, May 08, 2013

What the Supreme Court said about whether a tomato is a vegetable

Last night I caught the tail end of the seed library presentation at the library in Abingdon and one of the seed people said that a tomato is botanically a fruit but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is a vegetable. So, of course, I had to look up the case, which is Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 309 (1893). The issue before the Court in Nix was whether the tax collector for the Port of New York could collect a federal tax on imported "vegetables in their natural state" with respect to imported tomatoes, where the tax did not apply to "fruit." The opinion was written by Justice Gray, who preceded Justice Holmes on the Court and had a similar background as a well-to-do Bostonian who had served on the appeals court in Massachusetts.

Justice Gray wrote that the terms "fruit" and "vegetables" did not have any special meanings, that the Court was bound to take judicial notice of their ordinary meanings, that dictionary definitions were not evidence but aids to the "memory and understanding of the Court" regarding the ordinary meanings, and that while "[b]otanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas," nevertheless, "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, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, 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." And so, a tomato is a vegetable, because of how we talk about it when we eat it, regardless of what the scientists say - and the tax collector wins. Surely, my old professor David Yalden-Thomson would have approved of this analysis, as he believed the most profound sentence ever written was that "the meaning of a word its use." The Nix case is sometimes cited for its use of dictionaries.

Referencing the Court's decision, this article makes the case for tomatoes as dessert. If tomato tarts and tomato yogurt took the notion by storm, would a tomato then become a fruit as that term was used in subsequent legislation? I wonder. Pictured below are what I think are some of what are my dad's favorite tomato, the Pink Lady.

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