Tomayto - Tomahto

There are hundreds of words that Americans pronounce differently from each other. If you look into it or travel a lot you know that words such as “route,” “aunt,” “often,” “caught,” and “dawn,” all sound different depending on where you are. But only one set of these alternate pronunciations have been honored by being the topic of one of America’s most famous songs and then elevated into one of the most universally understood sayings in the United States.

The song was George Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off,” which included a line that went, “You like tomayto and I like tomahto.” But, today, if someone comments, “you say toMAYto, I say toMahto,” you know they are implying that whatever was said in a previous statement refers to a difference so insignificant that it is not worthy of further comment.

Another problem with words referring to tomato is the question of whether it is a fruit or a vegetable. The confusion here comes about because to a botanist, the tomato is a fruit because is the reproductive part of a plant that contains seed(s). However, to the USDA or a chef it is a vegetable because it is not sweet when raw. Think about this: a watermelon is usually considered to be a fruit while its close cousin, the cucumber, is usually thought of as a vegetable.

This confusion has gone on for many years, and in 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide the matter. The John Nix & Co. wanted to bring tomatoes from the Caribbean into New York, but the tax collector at the port said they had to pay a 10% tariff on imported vegetables. The Nix Company said that tomatoes were a fruit and, as such should the import duty on vegetables should not apply.  The government didn’t agree, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided (largely on the basis of how most Americans use the word “tomato” and because it wasn’t eaten for desert ) that tomatoes are a vegetable. Thus, the Nix Company had to pay the duty, but the matter is still not closed. Today, the tomato is the state fruit of Ohio and Tennessee and the state vegetable of New Jersey.

Ultimately, it was the journalist, Miles Kington, who probably came up with the best solution to this knotty problem by saying, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad."

Despite any problems with words describing the tomato, Americans have no problem eating them. The 2017 Census of Agriculture showed that each of us ate 20 lbs of fresh tomatoes, and that did not count those grown in the millions of home gardens with tomato sales under $1,000. In fact, fresh and processed tomatoes are the second most consumed vegetable in the U.S. – right behind the poTAYtoe/poTAHto (I leave the choice of how to say that one up to you.)


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