Is a Pickle Considered a Vegetable?

by Charlie
Pickle

Our planet is so full of mysteries it can sometimes feel like we may never have the answers. But then again, there are the times when things we thought we understood are made infinitely more unknowable thanks to the Supreme Court, botany, and culinary experts.

Is a pickle considered a vegetable? No, a pickle is not considered a vegetable, but rather a fruit. The question of whether pickles are vegetables should be a simple one, but there’s a whole lot of history complicating the answer. Though it may seem controversial and wrong, based on all available information, we have to admit that pickles are a fruit.

History of Pickles

Pickling is thought to be one of the first and longest used methods of food preservation. Thought to have originated in Mesopotamia in 2400 BCE, pickling is the process of submerging fruits and vegetables in salt water or vinegar, preserving them via anaerobic (oxygen-free) fermentation.

Typically, the brine or vinegar will be absorbed into the fruit or vegetable, creating a pH level of less than 4.6, making it acidic enough to kill a lot of bacteria, but delicious enough to eat every day.

Though you can pickle a lot of things, when Americans talk pickles, we’re usually referring to the pickled cucumbers. 

The Humble Pickle

The pickle has long been a staple of delis, barbecues, and burger joints the country over. But long before this savory, tangy snack became an American classic, it was literally a lifesaver. 

Before the advent of refrigerators and airplane travel, we made all our trips via boat. This meant that we had few means of preserving fresh food for long voyages. And what happens when you combine an extended journey at sea with no access to fresh produce? You get scurvy.

Thanks to the humble pickled cucumber, vitamin C deficiency could be held at bay, and captains stocked their vessels with large barrels of pickles to keep their seamen happy, healthy, and scurvy-free.

Why the Pickle Isn’t Considered a Vegetable

On the topic of sailing, one of the main reasons that pickles, or at least cucumbers, are labeled vegetables instead of fruit is because of a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1893 when a John Nix sued the Port of New York to get back taxes paid on vegetables.

Nix v. Hedden

The case of Nix v. Hedden came to the highest court in the nation in 1893, where the full might of the judicial system gathered to determine whether tomatoes were fruits or vegetables. 

John Nix, importer of fine fruits and founder of the John Nix ; Co. was minding his own business when suddenly President Arthur signed the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883, creating a tax on all imported vegetables. 

Whether genuinely outraged or hoping to find a profitable loophole, Nix ; Co. decided to file suit against the Collector of the Port of New York to recover duties paid on tomatoes, in light of this new law. 

Botanists vs. Common Usage

During the trial, botanists testified that a tomato was in fact a fruit, but the court found in favor of the respondent anyway.

Botanists classify fruit as the product of the seed-bearing plant that flowers, formed in the ovary after flowering has occurred. Cucumbers fit this criterion and are therefore fruit.

Many witnesses testified that a culinary approach was the more practical one and that tomatoes (and by definition cucumbers) should be categorized based on how we use them. 

Because the botanical definition hinges on a certain level of plant know-how to properly taxonomize that the average person may not possess, this may be why the Justices present all found unanimously in favor of the Collector of the Port. 

Culinary and Nutritional Value

Further complication matters are the culinary and nutritional categorizations. They may be similar, but both have different reasoning for their conclusion. 

Similar to those justices of the Supreme Court, chefs frequently classify fruits and vegetables based on how they are prepared and the part of the meal when they are eaten. 

Nutritionists base their definition on nutritional content. In their view, fruits are inherently full of naturally occurring sugars and vegetables are not. 

Why a Pickle is a Fruit

Though it may have made sense to classify fruits and vegetables based on how we prepare them, any contemporary gourmand knows that this is a problem that makes agreeing on common usage a moveable feast. 

A New Century and New Cuisine

In the century or so since Nix v. Hedden, the way we prepare our food has changed drastically due to cultural exchange, technological advances, and good old-fashioned human ingenuity. Because of that, cucumbers and their pickled form are no longer just for dinner.

A quick search online will lead you to 5-star reviewed recipes for pickle cupcakes, pickle sugar cookies, pickle tarts, and pickle ice creams. We even have pickling recipes that will make your pickles sweet as candy.

Similarly, you can find all manner of recipes for kale cakes, spinach bars, and even beetroot cake. Fruit is also sneaking onto the dinner plate with recipes like grilled watermelon salad, and our favorite topic of debate: pineapple on pizza.

Because where and how we eat fruits and vegetables has changed so drastically, the Supreme Court’s decision, opinion of old-fashioned chefs, and modern nutritionists should no longer hold sway. 

The botanical definition is the only one that has withstood the test of time. 

The Transformative Potential of Pickling

Some will argue that because a pickle is not found in nature and has been altered by the process of pickling, it can no longer fit into the category of fruit or vegetable, and therefore the argument is moot. 

Not so! Is a pickled egg still not an egg? A pickled walnut not still a walnut? Common sense says yes. 

Final Thoughts

This is one of those rare instances where shocking new information doesn’t need to change anything about the way you enjoy something.

Though the revelation that pickles are fruits may have shaken you, don’t be too concerned. Strange, sweet pickle concoctions are in vogue, but definitely not the norm, and no one is going to force you to incorporate them into your sweet treats.

Take heart from the wise words of British journalist and broadcaster Miles Kington who said, “knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” 

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