“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, right?
To this simple question, there is an equally simple, two-word answer—and that answer is, it depends.
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 exactly to classify the cuke (and its briny cousin, the pickle).
Because, even though botanists and dictionary editors are almost unanimous in their opinion that pickled cucumbers are indeed fruits, lawyers, who abide by U.S. Supreme Court rulings, consider them vegetables.
As you read this, you may be thinking to yourself, “Oh, gosh, what a pickle! How in the world did this happen?”
Allow me to explain.
Technically, Pickles Are Fruits
Ask a botanist whether cucumbers are fruits or vegetables, and they will leave no room for interpretation in their answer: Cucumbers—and thus pickles—are 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.
To put it simply, plants that produce fruit produce fruit 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 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 they have seeds. (And they taste damn right delicious, fresh or pickled!)
But They’re 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, cucumbers and pickles are fruits. And yet legally, and in the vernacular of the people, they are vegetables.
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 Say?
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.
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!