September 24, 2022

This year’s warm summer really decimated the tomato plants I put in the containers.  They did not produce much fruit and then all the lower stems withered and died and all six of the plants are looking bad.  When I researched how to prune a tomato two years ago it suggested not to prune at all if they were a determinate (stops at certain height) but pruning an indeterminant will cause the plant to quit producing stems and start producing flowers.  I knew the tomato plants I have put in the containers over the last three years were indeterminants. I had never pruned them, and they had never grown much above the tall cages (4 feet/1.2 meter) I use to support them.  This year the plants were short on production but had all outgrown the cages by several feet.  Since it is getting cooler, I decided to prune the dead stems and see if they would make a final push at production before the frost.  As I worked, I pondered why the tomato is referred to as both a fruit and a vegetable.

When I looked online, I found it the double reference for the tomato is based on context.  The Encyclopedia Britannica states a tomato is a fruit but is labeled in grocery stores as a vegetable because of their taste and nutritional purposes.  Botanically, a tomato is a fruit (a berry), consisting of the ovary and its seeds, of a flowering plant.  The tomato is considered a culinary vegetable because it has a much lower sugar content than culinary fruits.  The tomato is also more savory in taste than sweet and is typically served as part of a salad or main course of a meal rather than as a dessert.  Tomatoes are not the only food source with this ambiguity.  It turns out bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, avocados, green beans, and all kinds of squashes (such as zucchini and pumpkins) are all botanically fruit yet cooked as vegetables. 

The confusion over culinary verses botanical difference of tomatoes as fruits or vegetables led to a legal dispute in 1887.  Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893), was a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court that, under US customs regulations, the tomato should be classified as a vegetable rather than fruit.  John Nix founded the John Nix & Co. fruit commission in New York City in 1839 and became one of the largest sellers of produce in New York City at the time.  Nix & Co. was also one of the first companies to ship produce from Virginia, Florida, and Bermuda to New York.  Edward Hedden was Collector of the Port of New York who applied the tariff.  In a unanimous decision, the Court’s opinion held that the Tariff Act of 1883 used the ordinary meaning of “fruit” and “vegetable”, instead of the technical botanical meaning.  The holding of this case was said to apply only to the interpretation of the Tariff of 1883, and the court did not claim to reclassify the tomato for botanical or other purposes.

THOUGHTS:  While the tomato may generally be served with dinner and not as a dessert, there are many recipes for tomato cakes, pies, and especially gelati and ices.  Likewise, the only way I have ever eaten pumpkin is in a pie.  Does this mean both are culinary fruits as well as botanical fruits?  Words and their definitions are an important part of communication and culture and what we intend to mean can be understood differently by others.  Communication requires people to speaker and listen in a way others understand.  Otherwise, it is just noise.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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