The Official Verdict in the Fruit v. Vegetable Debate
In 1883, the U.S. Congress passed a Tariff Act imposing a 10% tax on imported vegetables to protect American farmers from foreign competition. Although that may sound like a fairly straightforward piece of legislation, one New York family took issue with a single word in the law: “vegetable.” The Nixes—John, John, George and Frank—imported a shipment of tomatoes from the West Indies in 1886, and were outraged to have to pay a “vegetable” tax on what scientists had for years agreed was technically a fruit. They forked over the 10%, but then they turned around and sued Edward Hedden, the Collector of the Port of New York, to recover the duties they thought they had been made to pay unfairly.
Somehow, none of the lower courts managed to satisfactorily sort out this semantic debate, so by 1893, the case had made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawyer for the plaintiff read definitions from Webster’s and Worcester’s for potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, and carrot to prove that the tomato was of an entirely different ilk than those edible roots, leaves, and flowers. The defendant parried back with Webster’s definition of “vegetable”: “cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, potatoes, peas, beans, and the like,” and called in multiple witnesses to testify that tomatoes were commonly understood to be covered by those crucial last three words.
The court sided unanimously with the defendant. As Justice Horace Gray wrote in the decision:
The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word “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. These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are “fruit,” as distinguished from “vegetables,” in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.
Gray went on to explain that regardless of the scientific definition, in “common parlance” tomatoes were considered a vegetable and most commonly eaten as part of the main course, as opposed to fruits, which the court agreed were more commonly eaten for dessert. And so, to this day, the tomato is legally considered a vegetable even though, as even the court acknowledged, it is botanically classified as a fruit.
More Than a Technicality
I suspect that the reason the debate about whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable lives on while other culinary “vegetables” that contain the seeds of flowering plants (like cucumbers, peppers, squash, peas, and beans) remain relatively uncontroversial is because tomatoes walk the line between savory and sweet. As the Supreme Court noted, they’re too savory—and in particular, contain too much glutamate, which makes them rich or even “meaty”—to be routinely eaten for dessert, but at the peak of their season, they can be almost as sweet as strawberries and far sweeter than other berries that do regularly appear in desserts, like cranberries or currants.
While I’m a big fan of tomato-flavored desserts, too—more on that later this week when I post about my tomato curd shortbread squares—what’s great about the tomato jam that Mark Bittman wrote about two years ago is that it reflects the tomato’s ambivalent nature. A cup of sugar enhances the natural sweetness of late summer tomatoes and gives it the thick, gooey consistency of any other fruit jam, but an hour or more of simmering also intensifies the savory umami flavor imparted by tomatoes’ high glutamate content. It also gets a spicy kick from the jalapeno and tartness from both the natural acidity of the tomatoes and the addition of some lime juice. Cloves and cinnamon give it just a hint of bitterness, so it actually hits basically all the major taste categories. Pair it with something fatty like cheese or softly-scrambled eggs, and you activate all the taste sensations typically associated with food (missing only metallic and alkaline, which are generally far less appetizing).
Bittman says it’s great on tuna, meat, or white fish. Given its similarity to ketchup or tomato chutney, I can also imagine it being served with any form of fried potato—from French fries to samosas. It would also make sense as a burger topping or sandwich spread with any number of fillings—grilled eggplant, ham, or a thick slice of cheddar or a smear of goat cheese. Or, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you could exploit and enhance its sweetness by using it the way you might use strawberry or raspberry preserves—as a filling for a cookie or cake, a topping for cheesecake or ice cream, or a mix-in for cake batter, icing, or a custard base. With this jam, you could make anything from tomato rugelach to tomato cupcakes with tomato cream cheese frosting or tomato ice cream.
The possibilities are basically endless, but the window of opportunity is probably limited—I can’t imagine getting satisfactory results with the kind of supermarket tomatoes that are picked and shipped when they’re green and stay hard and relatively flavorless even after ripened with ethylene gas. I suppose it’s possible that canned tomatoes could work, since they’re generally preserved at their peak ripeness, but no guarantees. If I get a hankering for it in February, maybe I’ll try it and let you know.
Recipe: Tomato Jam (from Mark Bittman)
- 1 1/2 lbs very ripe tomatoes
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 T. lime juice (from about 1/2 a large lime)
- 1 T. minced or grated fresh ginger
- 1 jalapeno (or other hot pepper) or a pinch of cayenne or red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 t. ground cumin
- 1/4 t. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 t. salt
- a pinch of ground cloves
1. Core and dice the tomatoes. If you don’t want the skins in the final product, blanche them before chopping in boiling water for 60 seconds and then dunk them in an ice bath or run them under cool water—the skins will slip right off.
2. Stem the jalapeno, and remove the seeds if you’re wary of the heat—you can always add the seeds back in later if you want more of a bite.
3. Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
4. Turn the heat down until the mixture is just simmering gently, and cook for at least an hour until the texture is thick and jammy, stirring occasionally (it took me about an hour and a half). You’ll have to stir it more frequently towards the end of the cooking time to prevent it from burning to the bottom of the pan. It will thicken more after it cools, but it should be thicker than a sauce before you take it off the heat.
5. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. Then, cool completely and refrigerate until ready to serve.