Vegetable Week: Nix v. Hedden

One of the great, yet underappreciated, Supreme Court opinions ever published was Nix v. Hedden, in 1893. In that seminal decision, the Court wrestled with the weighty question of whether a tomato is a “vegetable,” or a “fruit,” within the meaning of the Tariff Act of 1883. The entire decision, including title, reporter’s note, background description, and the Court’s opinion itself consume only four pages of the U.S. Reports, and the opinion of Mr. Justice Gray is a mere two pages long, with nary a footnote in sight.

The Court’s opinion was straightforward. It unanimously found that there was no evidence that the words “fruit” and “vegetable” had acquired any special meaning in trade or commerce. As a result, the words used in the Tariff Act had to be given their ordinary meaning. The Court then applied the ultimate test — namely, when are tomatoes served during a dinner meal? The Court reasoned: “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.” In short, because no rational person would consume a tomato for dessert, it must be a vegetable.

It’s too bad we have moved beyond the days when the Supreme Court could address truly momentous legal issues, like whether a tomato should be deemed a fruit or a vegetable. In any case, Nix v. Hedden is a very helpful authority to cite when smart-alecks — like my good friend Dr. Science — argue that my anti-vegetable stance should not extend to tomatoes because, botanically speaking, they are properly classified as a fruit. Take that, Dr. Science! The Supreme Court as spoken, and as a lawyer I am bound to follow precedent.

1 thought on “Vegetable Week: Nix v. Hedden

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