In Which a Tomato Appears Before the U.S. Supreme Court

I have tomatoes on my mind these days.

Chicago has been hovering on the edge of spring of days now–though you wouldn’t know it by looking out the window today. Last week I planted peas, lettuces and radishes. I’m eager to plant heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, summer herbs, some more tomatoes. But the weather isn’t quite cooperating., so I’m going to have to wait until we get back from the Great D-Day Tour. Which means waiting a couple of weeks longer before we have tomatoes from my two raised beds.

In the absence of an opportunity to play in the dirt, I’ll share a small historical controversy surrounding the tomato.

As someone is always willing to point out, the tomato is botanically a fruit.* In the United States, the tomato is legally a vegetable, and has been since 1893 thanks to a ruling by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Nix v. Hedden .

The case began with the Tariff Act of 1883, which placed a ten percent tax on imported vegetables. Some vegetable sellers refused to pay the tax on imported tomatoes on the grounds that the tomato is a fruit. Edward L. Hedden, a customs official at the Port of New York, didn’t buy it. When a vegetable merchant named Nix imported a load of tomatoes, he imposed the tariff. The Nix family sued.

After six years, the case reached the Supreme Court. Technically, the Nix family was right. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court ruled that since we eat tomatoes like a vegetable, they are a vegetable for purposes of trade. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you tax it like a duck.

* I must admit, sometimes that person has been me. Sorry.

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.