Food Fight Muy Grande Spain's Great Tomato War

It is perhaps the largest food fight in the world. Every year in the tiny town of Buñol, Spain, locals and tourists engage in pitched battle using close to 150,000 kilograms of tomatoes. The tradition has been going on for over 60 years, but no one seems to know how or why it got its start.

It's one of those childish impulses most of us know well. Faced with a plate full of food in a room full of people, it's hard not to indulge in fantasies of throwing your dinner at those seated around you. Indeed, the good old school cafeteria food fight is high on the list of pleasant childhood memories for many.

As it happens, though, there are a number of places in Europe where you don't have to restrain yourself should the urge to throw some groceries come upon you. From Spain to Greece to Italy to Berlin, food fights have become something of an annual ritual, all in the name of tradition, of course. As part of our ongoing series on weird European traditions, SPIEGEL ONLINE plans to bring you up to date in the next month on the most outrageous of the continent's food fights.

The largest and best known, of course, is the vast tomato war fought in the tiny Spanish town of Buñol, located not far from València. Every year, on the last Wednesday in August, thousands of locals and tourists pile into the narrow town square, the Plaza del Pueblo, well before noon to wait for the first of the trucks laden with overripe tomatoes to arrive. Right at midday, a rocket marks the start of battle, the first load of juicy ammunition is poured into the square, and the sky turns dark with vegetal projectiles.

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The slaughter lasts for just one hour, but it is long enough to turn the village into a small sea of tomato juice, tomato paste, and tomato chunks. And it is complete chaos. Some 150,000 kilograms of tomatoes get thrown in the no-holds-barred battle; and before long, everyone involved is dripping with seeds, skins and sauce. A second rocket fired after six trucks worth of tomatoes are used up marks the end of the fight.

La Tomatina is the event's official name, and it isn't just about tomatoes. The day starts early as the crowd -- many of them tourists from as far away as Japan, Australia and the United States -- tanks up on beer and wine to while away the hours until the main event. There is also a competition involving participants attempting to climb up a liberally greased pole to get to a smoked ham. By the time noon approaches, the crowd is overheated and impatient. Chants of "to-ma-te, to-ma-te" begin filling the air.

The festival has enjoyed tremendous publicity in recent years, but it is still a relatively new event -- at least by Old Europe standards -- having begun in 1945. Still, despite its youth relative to many of Europe's other festivals, nobody can quite agree on how it got started. Some say it began when locals began bombarding a less-than-divine musician who happened through town. According to that version of events, the townspeople had so much fun they did it again the next year. Others say the tradition was born out of an impromptu food fight among a group of friends, who used the tomatoes on their salads as ammunition. Yet another theory has it that La Tomatina started at an anti-Franco rally.

Perhaps the most believable, though, is the hypothesis posited on the festival's official Web site. According to that account, two groups of young people got into a brawl in late August 1945, during the San Fermin festival -- which involves people wandering around in costumes with gigantic heads. (Also the festival out of which Pamplona's running of the bulls was born.) The brawl turned into a food fight when revellers began grabbing tomatoes off of a nearby vegetable cart. They ended up having such a great time that they did it again the next year.

Whatever its origins, the local authorities were far from impressed with the budding tradition. A number of the first tomato battles were broken up and the perpetrators fined. In the beginning of the 1950s, the festival was banned again by the Buñol city hall, prompting locals to hold a massive protest called "the tomato funeral" in 1955. Finally, the party was sanctioned in 1957 and the city began supplying the ammunition in 1980.

These days, the city has turned clean up into a science. Just after the last tomato splats to the pavement, an army of volunteers turns on the hoses, strips the protective plastic from the buildings, and scrubs down the pavement. Participants are responsible for cleaning themselves up.


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