Fruit or Vegetable

The tomato. Is it a fruit or vegetable?

I think it was sometime early on in elementary school when we were learning about fruits and vegetables that the question came up about the tomato. Was it a fruit or was it a vegetable?

The answer, we were told, was it was both. I went to school in the dark ages, when answers were either correct or wrong. There was no in-between. Oh, sometimes questions were written in such a way to be tricky and make sure you were correctly reading the question, but there was only one correct answer.

So how could a tomato be both a fruit and a vegetable? We were told the tomato was a fruit because it produced seeds and was grown from the flowering part of the plant. Botanically, a tomato was a fruit.

However, the tomato was also a vegetable because it was commonly thought to be a vegetable. Now THAT made no sense at all! A tomato was a vegetable because most people perceived it to be a vegetable? You can imagine how confusing THAT would be for a young person. Somehow my perception of being right in an argument with my sister didn’t count for anything when arguing my case before my mother! How could my perception of a tomato as vegetable be right but not my perception of being right in an argument against my sister?!? Of course, I thought it was just another instance of adult dominance against children, imposing their rules and regulations haphazardly to validate their own judgment (Yes, I really did think like that).

Imagine my surprise when I learned today that the United States Supreme Court ruled on the issue of tomato as fruit versus vegetable in 1893 in Nix vs. Hedden! Seriously.

The Tariff Act of 1883 required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. John Nix filed a suit against Edward Hedden, the collector of the Port of New York. Their goal was to recover back taxes paid. Their argument was that, since botanically a tomato was a fruit, and not a vegetable, there should have been no tariffs required on tomatoes.

A lower court had ruled that since the ordinary meaning of tomato was classified as a vegetable, it fell under The Tariff Act of 1883. When the case went be fore the Supreme Court, Webster’s Dictionary, among others, was consulted by both sides as to the definition of a tomato.┬áNeedless to say, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the lower court when it ruled that, for the purposes of taxation, the tomato was a vegetable because of it’s ordinary perception of the general public.

I can now see why we were never told the real reason a tomato is classified as a vegetable! When remarks are made today about the nature of some cases that come before the Supreme Court, I can say with unequivocal assuredness that this is nothing new. We have a history of bringing seemingly odd cases before the Court. I haven’t yet decided if this is a good or a bad thing.

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