No, they’re a vegetable.
No wait — they’re a fruit.
The truth: they’re both. The two groups are not mutually exclusive.
The term “fruit” is a botanical one. A fruit, botanically speaking, is the seed-containing ovaries of a flowering plant — and yes, this definition includes the tomato pictured above, as well as cucumbers, which are also often referred to as a vegetable.
This is because the term “vegetable” is, by and large, culinary in nature. The term lacks scientific meaning and is, instead, is defined loosely by the culture of food, with when and how a specific food is served being the typical manner by which the food is categorized. For example, plants which are most commonly used in soups, salads, or as side dishes to main course are typically considered vegetables. This includes tomatoes and cucumbers, and also includes sweet corn (a grain whose kernels are the fruit) and mushrooms (which is a fungus, not a plant). So while the term “vegetable” generally refers to the edible parts of plants other than the fruit or seeds, that distinction is imprecise and incomplete.
And despite the “tomatoes are a fruit” canard most are familiar with, this dual-label is not very controversial. The linguistic experts at Oxford University echo this sentiment, and two online dictionaries also note that tomatoes are both fruits and veggies, depending on context.
Much ado about nothing? Perhaps, but the U.S. Supreme Court found the issue important enough to address. In 1883, the U.S. government passed a tariff act, requiring that importers of vegetables pay a specific tax — a tax which did not apply to the importation of fruits. Ten years later, in Nix v. Hedden, a group of tomato importers filed suit against the government, hoping to recover taxes already paid, by arguing that botanically, tomatoes were a fruit and therefore not subject to the tariff. In a unanimous decision, the Court held in favor of the government. Noting that tomatoes were used typically with main courses and not as desserts, the Court concluded that tomatoes were subject to the import tax.
At the state level, three states — Arkansas, Ohio, and Tennessee — call the tomato the state fruit. (In Arkansas, it is actually the official fruit/vegetable.) But this is not unanimous: In 2005, the state of New Jersey relied on the reasoning in Nix when it considered making the tomato the official vegetable of the state.
Bonus fact: In 2000, police in Blacksburg, Virginia kept receiving 911 calls from a the home of Daniel and Linda Hurst — but when the emergency operator spoke, no one on the Hursts’ end spoke. After determining that the Hursts were not home, the police decided to raid the home, guns drawn, to search for potential hostages or malfeasors. The found neither. Instead, they found an overripe tomato, dripping its juice onto an answering machine. This caused the answering machine to short circuit and, for some reason, repeatedly dial 911.
From the Archives: “Tomato Ketchup” Isn’t Redundant: Did you know that there are types of ketchups which do not have tomatoes as an ingredient?
Related reading: “How to Grow World Record Tomatoes: A Guinness Champion Reveals His All-Organic Secrets,” by Charles H. Wilber. 24 reviews averaging 4.5 stars.