By Matt Rozsa
It seems to be an American tradition: you refer to the tomato as a vegetable and someone is bound to chime in to clarify that it is in fact a fruit. After all, they’ll point out, a fruit is any edible plant that develops from the fertilized ovary of a flower. Indeed, by this logic tomatoes aren’t the only nominal vegetable that ought to be classified as a fruit — the same thing can be said of cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, pea pods, peppers, eggplants, and even corn kernels.
Make no mistake about it, though: If Mr. or Ms. Smartypants insists on telling you that the tomato is a fruit, you can rebut them by pointing to no less of an authority than the United States Supreme Court. Back in 1886, an importer named John Nix set the botanical world afire when he insisted on not paying a foreign vegetable import tax on his stock of tomatoes, which he observed were scientifically classified as fruits. When the case finally arrived at the Supreme Court in 1893, however, Justice Horace Gray came down on the side of classifying them as vegetables, arguing that the colloquial uses of the terms “fruit” and “vegetable” were more economically germane than the scientific ones.
“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine,” Justice Gray explained. “Just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people… all these vegetables… are usually served at dinner, in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally as dessert.”
In the end, this all comes down to a question of literal truth versus cultural truth. If you want to understand the tomato as an organic structure part of the natural world, you need to talk about it as a fruit, because within that context that’s exactly what it is. When talking about dietary issues, however, it is disingenuous to refer to the tomato as a fruit, since it is almost always consumed as a vegetable — in salads, as a topping, as the basis for a condiment, etc.
The tomato’s proper classification may be a surprisingly complicated subject, but it’s still an important one, and we’re all better off being well-informed about it.