Charlie Buttrey

August 10, 2020

Once every six weeks or so, a group of my family members and friends splits into five two-person teams for a game of trivia via Zoom. Each team is assigned a category and must create ten questions pertaining to that category. In the most recent iteration of the game, my team was tasked with coming up with ten questions in the category “Fun Facts About Vegetables.”

One of the questions I devised was: “In 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, under U.S. customs regulations, this fruit should be classified — and taxed — as a vegetable.”

You have no doubt figured out the answer.

The more interesting question is “What the…?”

Here is, as Paul Harvey was wont to say, the rest of the story:

The Tariff Act of 1883 required that taxes be paid on imported vegetables, but imported fruit was not subject to the tariff. “A-ha!” you can hear the tomato importers exclaim with glee, “The tomato is a fruit! Therefore, it’s tax-free! Bra-ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Not so fast.

The tax collector in the port of New York insisted on taxing tomatoes as a vegetable, and a tomato importer sued. At trial, both parties read into evidence the definitions of “fruit” and “vegetable” from various dictionaries, including the definitions of “pea,” “egg plant,” “cucumber,” “squash,” and “pepper,”, “potato,” “turnip,” “parsnip,” “cauliflower,” “cabbage,” “carrot,” and “bean.”

In the end, the court found for the tax collector and the tomato people appealed.

They didn’t fare much better before the highest court in the land, which held that the tomato was a vegetable because that’s how it is thought of in common parlance and used in the kitchen. Said the Court, “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

The things you learn by sending a few precious moments with this blog every day.


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