Writer - Peter Dabbene
In 1893, the Nix vs. Hedden case held the rapt attention of produce sellers across the nation, as the gastronomical classification of the tomato lay in the hands of the court. A tariff applied to vegetables, but not fruit, was the impetus for a decision whose impact reverberates even today, as lawyers ponderously cite dictionary definitions, and school-age children with rudimentary botanical knowledge confront their elders about the true identity of the tomato.
Fruit or vegetable? What follows is an unofficial, non-court issued interpretation of the critical events:
United States Supreme Court, 1893 --
Supreme Court Justice #1: We are called to order.
Defense Attorney #1: What are we ordering?
Defense Attorney #2: Stand up, idiot.
Supreme Court Justice #1: The case of Nix vs. Heddon will now proceed.
Prosecutor: Your honor, my client, as plaintiff, offers that the tomato is in truth a fruit, and therefore should not be subject to the surtax on vegetables.
Defense Attorney #1: Your honor, MY client, as defendant, correctly claims that the tomato is in fact a vegetable. Therefore, taxes collected as such are proper and legal.
Supreme Court Justice #1: Where did I go wrong? Harvard Law, and now this. Plaintiff, state your case.
Prosecutor: Very well. Webster's defines "fruit" as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed.
Supreme Court Justice #1: Hee hee. "Juicy".
Supreme Court Justice # 2: Ha. "Pulpy" Ha ha.
Defense Attorney #2: Two can play at that game. Webster's defines "defines" as "discovering and setting forth the meaning of a word", which implies--
Prosecutor: —A definition duel, eh? (Quickly flips pages in dictionary) Well, Webster's defines "meaning" as--
Supreme Court Justice # 2: Oh, good Lord.
Supreme Court Justice # 1: For purposes of clarity in the court record, would you please state the full name of "Webster's"?
Defense Attorney #1: Allow me to offer a definition: Oxford defines "Webster's" as "an inferior dictionary set forth by one 'Noah Webster'".
Prosecutor: No, it does not!
Defense Attorney #2: Unofficially, it does.
Supreme Court Justice #1: Forget fruits and vegetables, can we ban the use of dictionaries to set up an argument?
Supreme Court Justice #2: I'm sure it's just a passing fad.
Defense Attorney #1: Apologies, your honor. Though he was the one who started it.
Prosecutor: The tomato IS a fruit. It has seeds and other...um, fruit-like qualities. The defense will likely claim that there is more precedent for the tomato as a vegetable, but I would ask, which precedents do we honor? Incorrect ones? Might I remind the court of another famous tomato trial, in 1820?
Salem, New Jersey, June 28, 1820--
"I, Robert Gibbon Johnson, will now prove, on the steps of this courthouse, that the tomato is not poisonous."
"You're crazy, man! It's the 'devil's apple'!"
"Have you read The Book of Genesis? It seems to me that the APPLE is the Devil's apple. Some call the tomato the 'love apple'. It IS luscious..."
“Watch yourself, man…”
"He used the 's' word!"
"I tell you, not only is the tomato safe, it is delicious!"
"The devil has taken him!"
"Oh my God, he's really going to eat it!"
"It's attacking his mouth! Blood! There's blood everywhere! It's an attack of killer tomatoes!"
"That's not his blood, it's tomato blood. I mean, juice!"
"Look, he's finishing it off!"
"I yet live! Victory!"
Prosecutor: Er.. yes. As I was saying, the tomato has long been the victim of a reputation unearned. Once it was considered poisonous, until enlightened men decided to test the theory that it was, in fact, edible.
Defense Attorney #2: Enlightened men, yes—who made their test in the way babies do, by gnawing on the item in question and seeing what happened.
Prosecutor: Now the enlightened men of this Court are called upon to set right a great injustice.
Supreme Court Justice #1: Counselor, you might be a bit overblown...
Prosecutor: Surely, the Court must see that this battle of nomenclature between "vegetable" and "fruit" stands in importance beside those rivalries of the past. Istanbul WAS Constantinople; now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople.
Defense Attorney #1: Been a long time gone, Constantinople...
Supreme Court Justice #1: Stop dancing!
Prosecutor and Defense Attorney #1 (in unison): Sorry, your honor.
Prosecutor: Similarly, there was the question of what to call the 7th planet. Only later did its discoverer agree to name it for Uranus.
Supreme Court Justices 1 +2: (titters)
Prosecutor: What? That's its name! What's so damn funny?
Supreme Court Justices 1 +2: (guffaws)
Prosecutor: Ridiculous... I'll wager that Sir William Herschel never had to put up with this sort of abuse.
London, England, 1783--
"Herschel, have you decided upon a name for this planet you've discovered?"
"I believe the planet's name should honor King George III, by incorporating his name. Personally, I like the sound of Georgium Sidus, which means 'George's Star'."
"I, and most of your fellow astronomers, would prefer that you name it after Uranus."
"Modesty would never permit me to name it for me, or any part of my body. Would you accept 'King George's Anus'?"
(titters, chuckles, and guffaws)
Supreme Court Justice #1: Sir, I will wager that he did.
Supreme Court Justice #1: I would bet that he did put up with much abuse.
Prosecutor: Upon reflection... you are probably correct.
Defense Attorney #2: Can we get back to this case, please? Tomatoes do not fit in the same category as apples, bananas, and oranges. The latter are all fruit.
Defense Attorney #1: Fruits.
Supreme Court Justice #1: Hmm... you make an interesting point.
Supreme Court Justice #2: Yes—what IS the plural of fruit?
Supreme Court Justice #1: I meant about the tomatoes.
Prosecutor: Your honors, the claim of tomato as a vegetable is simply preposterous.
Defense Attorney #1: Food merchants everywhere disagree: consider the pea, the cucumber, the eggplant, the squash, the pepper—all are seeded plants of the vine that are commonly classified as vegetables.
Supreme Court Justice #1: Wait a minute... has anyone else ever wondered why it's called an eggplant?
Supreme Court Justice #2: I know, right? There is nothing of the egg about it.
Prosecutor: Meanwhile, the tomato is a fruit.
Defense Attorney #1: The tomato is a vegetable.
Prosecutor: The only true vegetables are stems, leaves, and roots.
Supreme Court Justice #1: Yuck! We would hope that you can agree on one point regarding vegetables—that no one likes to eat them!
Supreme Court Justice #2: Ha ha... Oh, we do have fun.
Prosecutor: I rest my case.
Defense Attorney #1: Me too.
Supreme Court Justice #1: Excuse us while we make our decision. (Turns away, briefly huddles with other Supreme Court Justices.) Okay, we're done.
Prosecutor: This doesn't bode well.
Supreme Court Justice #1: This Court has decided that the tomato is indeed... a vegetable.
Supreme Court Justice #2: But we would like to urge the two sides involved to not only cast aside their differences and accept the tomato decision with equanimity, but also to find agreement on a related issue--
Supreme Court Justice #1: Namely, "How is it pronounced?"
Defense Attorney #1: You mean "veg-ta-bull" or "veg-eh-ta-bull"?
Prosecutor: Or "veg-et-AH-bel"
Defense Attorney #1: Objection. You're reaching. No one says that.
Supreme Court Justice #2 Actually, we meant the pronunciation of the word "tom-AY-toe".
Supreme Court Justice #1: Or, alternatively, "tom-AH-toe".
Prosecutor: Let me get this straight—you say tom-AY-toe, he says tom-AH-toe?
Supreme Court Justice #2: Perhaps we should... just call the whole thing off?
Supreme Court Justice #1: Court dismissed.
* The Court's verdict was 9-0, finding the tomato to be a vegetable, for legal purposes. Incidentally, the modern-day European Union's Jam Directive, regulating jams and other fruit spreads, considers the carrot to be a fruit—but that's another story.