Fruity is in the eye of the beholder! Let’s talk about why the humble pickle is both a fruit and a vegetable based on who you ask.
Is the pickle a fruit or a vegetable? A simple question, am I right?
To this simple question, there is an equally simple, two-word answer. And the answer is, it depends. Depending on who you ask, the pickle is either a fruit or a vegetable.
What Are Pickles?
Pickles are pickled cucumbers. The cucumbers are immersed in a solution of water, vinegar, and salt, with the addition of seasonings such as sugar, spices, herbs, and even garlic cloves or pearl onions for flavor.
While you can add any spice or herb to your pickles, dill — the key herb for producing everyone’s favorite dill pickle — is arguably the most popular option.
There are two ways to turn pickles into cucumbers. Depending on the steps involved in the pickling process, the pickles can either be canned or fermented.
Canning is the process of sealing the pickles into sterilized jars. The jars are sealed with lids and heated in boiling water, which creates a vacuum seal that prevents air and bacteria from entering the jar.
Canned pickles, like all pickled foods, are shelf-stable and can be safely kept in the pantry for a long time.
Related: Pickles Can Go Bad. Here’s How Long They Last
Not all pickles are canned, though. Some are fermented.
Fermentation is when the pickles are dipped in a saltwater solution. The saltwater solution encourages the growth of good bacteria that feed on the sugars in the cucumbers and churn on lactic acid, which gives the final product a tangy flavor.
Fermented pickles must be refrigerated and don’t keep as long as canned pickles do.
Are Pickles Fruits or Vegetables?
So, what is it? Are pickles fruits or vegetables?
It was the ancient Mesopotamians who started preserving cucumbers in vinegar brine some 4,000 years ago.
You’d think that after four millennia, humanity would have agreed on how to classify the pickled cucumber, but you’d be wrong.
Although botanists and dictionary editors are almost unanimous in their opinion that pickled cucumbers are fruits, lawyers, who abide by U.S. Supreme Court rulings, consider them vegetables.
So, in a way, pickles are both fruits and vegetables. Now, you may be reading this and thinking to yourself, “Oh, wow, what a pickle!”
Allow me to explain.
Technically, Pickles Are Fruits
To put it simply, pickles are the pickled fruits of the cucumber plant.
Ask a botanist whether cucumbers are fruits or vegetables, and they will leave no room for interpretation in their answer: Since a cucumber is a fruit, this, by definition, makes the pickled cucumber a pickled fruit.
As defined by the New York Botanical Garden, the botanical definition of a fruit is a mature, ripened ovary that holds and disperses the seeds of the plant.
All fruits come from flowers, the reproductive parts of the plant. As Nathan Hecht writes on the University of Minnesota’s website, the flower is fertilized, and then it grows into a fruit that contains the seeds for the next generation.
In other words, plants that produce fruit do so to reproduce.
Plants can’t move, which makes reproduction tricky.
But they can at least grow gorgeous, delicious fruits that get eaten by animals. They eat the seeds inside along with the fruits and then excrete them into the soil. Once excreted into the soil, the seeds grow into plants.
As you can probably guess already, cucumbers fit this description perfectly. They grow on flowers and have seeds.
And yes, they taste damn right delicious, whether eaten raw or pickled!
But Pickles Are Also Vegetables
A little more than a hundred years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes — and cucumbers, and squashes, and beans, and peas — are vegetables. (Even though, botanically, they are actually fruits.)
It’s a long story, really. But the long story short goes like this:
In the late 19th century, all goods imported into the U.S. were subject to a 30-40% import tax.
This raised the prices of imported goods and helped American producers undercut the competition. But it also drove up prices for pretty much everything for American consumers.
So President Arthur set up a special commission to propose tarrif cuts to ease price pressures. A challenging task considering that the cuts had to satisfy both protectionist producers and frustrated consumers.
When the Tariff of 1883 was finally enacted, it failed to achieve its original promise and reduced tariffs on imported goods by only 1.5% on average. But it did introduce a dichotomy for produce importers: The duty on imported fruit was abolished but continued to be levied on imported vegetables.
In other words, importers of fruit didn’t have to pay import tax; importers of vegetables, however, still did.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one importer of tomatoes set out to prove that they owed no tariff on their imports because they were importing fruits.
The Nix family, importers of tomatoes, took the Port of New York to court in an attempt to recover the duties that they had paid them. Their claim was simple and, in a way, logical: They owed nothing to the port because, botanically, the tomato is a fruit.
To make their case, the lawyers brought up not only tomatoes but also cucumbers, pumpkins, beans, and peas. Witnesses from the importing industry testified. Experts were brought in.
Clearly, this wasn’t an easy decision for the courts to make because, in 1893, the Nix v. Haden case finally came before the U.S. Supreme Court.
After much deliberation, the justices opined that, although all the above are “fruit of the vine,” they are actually vegetables in the language of the people because (a) they are grown in gardens and (b) eaten as a main course and not as a dessert.
So, there you have it.
Botanically, the pickle is a fruit. And yet legally, and in the vernacular of the people, it is just a vegetable.
Who knows… Maybe one day the justices will be presented with another case about produce and they will undo their predecessors’ decision?
What Do Dictionaries Have to Say on the Matter?
Here’s where it gets interesting: Dictionary editors are also on the fence as to whether the cucumber (and pickle) is a fruit or vegetable.
For example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary refers to cucumbers as “the fruit of a vine,” and Encyclopædia Britannica says that cucumbers are widely cultivated for their edible fruit.
The Cambridge Dictionary, on the other hand, refers to the cucumber as “a long, thin, pale green vegetable.” The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries also refers to it as “a long vegetable with dark green skin.”
The Bottom Line
It’s a pickle, really. Cucumbers are a fruit according to botanists and some dictionaries. However, according to the U.S. Supreme Court and other dictionaries, they are a vegetable.
But hey, at least you get to choose who to side with!