Why are tomatoes called fruits?
Everyone understands the difference between a fruit and a vegetable, right? Fruits are enticing and delicious. Adam and Eve, unable to resist one, were booted from the blissful Garden of Eden; a fruit kicked off the Trojan War; and a fruit so seduced kidnapped Persephone in the Underworld that she simply couldn’t help taking a bite, thus landing the rest of us forevermore with the chilly season of winter. Vegetables don’t have the same impact. Traditionally, vegetables are the item that kids throw about on their plates and bury beneath their mashed potatoes.
So what’s the real difference between fruits and vegetables? Which one is it?
To a botanist, a fruit is an entity that develops from the fertilized ovary of a flower. This implies that tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, maize kernels, bean and pea pods, and apples, pears, peaches, apricots, melons, and mangos are all fruits. A vegetable, botanically, is any edible part of a plant that doesn’t happen to be a fruit, as in leaves (spinach, lettuce, cabbage), roots (carrots, beets, turnips), stems (asparagus), tubers (potatoes), bulbs (onions), and flowers (cauliflower and broccoli).
Politically and culinarily, though, it’s a very other story.
The Supreme Court Weighs In
The tomato’s tetchy narrative is the classic vegetable/fruit anecdote. In 1886, importer John Nix and colleagues landed a load of West Indian tomatoes at the Port of New York where the resident customs official—one Edward Hedden—demanded payment of a ten percent tax in accordance with the Tariff Act of 1883, which levied an import duty on “foreign vegetables.” Nix, who understood his botany, protested, claiming that the tomato, as a fruit, should be tax-free. The dispute finally reached the Supreme Court, where Judge Horace Gray decided in favor of vegetable in 1893.
“Botanically speaking,” remarked Judge Gray, “tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, 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.”
This was neither the first nor the last time that the Supreme Court was forced to struggle with botanical definitions of food. Justice Joseph Bradley in 1886 Robertson v. Salomon Beans were declared to be vegetables. (The lawyer for the protesting importer, arguing that beans were seeds, pointed to garden catalogs; the defense countered with a dinner recipe for baked beans.) “The Supreme Court has just determined that beans are vegetables,” a delighted Iowa newspaper reported. “This is difficult for Boston. That sophisticated metropolis can no longer send them as fruit into a suffering world.”
Subsequent court decisions found truffles, onions, and water chestnuts also to be vegetables, but ruled that rhubarb (a leaf petiole or stalk, like celery) was a fruit, presumably from its popularity in strawberry-rhubarb pie. Carrots, sweet potatoes, and the now-muddled tomatoes were all recognized fruits by the European Union in 2001, at least for the purpose of creating jam.
Oklahoma’s State Vegetable: The Watermelon
State legislators have further muddled the fruit/vegetable waters. The custom of creating state symbols dates to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (a.k.a. the Chicago World’s Fair), where some 27 million visitors viewed 65,000 exhibits, among them the world’s largest conveyor belt, a U.S. map made of pickles, Bach’s clavichord, a herd of ostriches, and a 22,000-pound Canadian cheese. The National Garland of Flowers, for which each state was requested to choose a representative flower, was also on display during the Fair.
State flowers were soon followed by a host of other official state symbols, among them birds, trees, animals, insects, reptiles, fossils, minerals, gemstones, songs, and folk dances. The states of Utah and Delaware now have official state stars. Official state boats may be found in Maine, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. The cowboy boot is the official state footwear of Texas. We have official state fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, herbs, drinks, muffins, cookies, and pies under the food category.
Others claim that fruit and vegetable selection was simple. Six states, for example, choose the apple as their iconic fruit, while three picked the strawberry. Two—Georgia and South Carolina—chose the peach; Alabama—unable to make up its mind—picked the blackberry as state fruit and the peach as the state tree fruit.
Tennessee and Ohio picked the tomato as their state fruit based on botany; Arkansas, on the other hand, declared the tomato to be both the state’s official fruit and vegetable. Louisiana, on the other hand, designated the sweet potato as the state vegetable while designating the tomato as the official “vegetable plant.” (The strawberry is Louisiana’s state fruit; they also have a state doughnut, a state jelly, and a state meat pie.)
Maybe the oddest of them is Oklahoma, whose state vegetable is the watermelon as of 2006. Senator Don Barrington, a Republican from the Rush Springs watermelon-growing region and a past winner of a neighborhood watermelon-seed-spitting contest, supported the Oklahoma watermelon law. Barrington’s argument was that the watermelon was a vegetable by virtue of its genetic relationship to the obviously vegetable (that is, not eaten as dessert) cucumber and gourd; and he got some back-up from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which lists melons under “Vegetables.” The fact that Oklahoma already has a state fruit, the strawberry, may have been the decisive factor.
Fruit’s Place in History
Our word fruit comes to us from the Latin fructus or frui , which means to relish; vegetable, a more stolid, commonsense term, originates from vegetabilis , which implies expanding (as in plants). Much of the enjoyable appeal of fruits lies in their irresistible sweetness: most temperate-zone fruits contain about 10 to 15 percent sugar by weight, and tropical fruits, by and large, are even sweeter. A juicy apple or orange has around 23 grams of sugar; a banana has about 17 grams; a peach has about 15 grams; and a ripe fig has about 10 grams.
Fruit’s overall delectability explains why it often leads to temptation. Thieves are more likely to steal peaches than peas if they break into your garden. In early America, moral education cautionary stories strongly cautioned that stealing fruit was the kind of gateway sin that led youngsters straight to a life of crime. Filching fruit might get you transported or executed in Victorian England. Yet, it is a sin with a lengthy history. Even Saint Augustine confesses to stealing pears before becoming a saint.
Nobody, however, puts a greater spin on fruit thieving than Mark Twain. Twain (along with his most famous hero, Huckleberry Finn) was a shameless stealer of watermelons. In one incident, he recalls lifting a melon from a farmer’s cart as a child while the farmer was waiting on a client. He hurried away with it, retired to a “secluded bower,” cracked it open, and discovered it was green. This prompted considerable introspection.
“What ought a boy do who has taken a green watermelon? What would George Washington do in this situation? It was the moment to put all of the teachings learned at Sunday School into practice. And they did act. “‘Restitution’ was the first word that sprang to me.”
So young Twain took the watermelon back to the farmer and conned him into apologizing and handing over a ripe one. Here lies, in my opinion, the solution to the slippery conundrum of fruit vs. vegetable. Watermelon is not a vegetable, Oklahoma. It’s a kind of fruit.
Nobody goes to such lengths for a vegetable.
When was tomato called a fruit?
That was the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray, released on this day in 1893. “Botanically speaking, tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas are all fruits of the vine,” he wrote.
Who decided tomatoes were a fruit?
Justice Horace Gray
“Botanically speaking, tomatoes, like cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas, are the fruit of a vine,” observed Judge Horace Gray in his 1893 decision.
Why are tomatoes legally a vegetable?
But in everyday life, they decided, vegetables were things “usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats … and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” Thus, according to customs rules, tomatoes counted as vegetables, and the importer was required to continue paying the duty.
Why is cucumber called a fruit?
Cucumbers are classified as fruits since they develop from the plant’s blooms and contain the seeds.