Tomato War

Food fights are a hallmark element of many American coming of age movies, as high schoolers or college students take aim at each other, throwing their lunches and desserts at each other in a mix of spite and innocent playfulness.  Perhaps the most well known food fight is the iconic one from Animal House, where the late John Belushi provokes an enormous one taking over the campus dining hall.
The Spanish town of Bunol makes Belushi’s seem mundane, taking food fights to another level — an absolutely massive food fight, believed to be the world’s largest, as seen above.  (Click here for a larger image.)

Every year, on the last Wednesday of August, the streets of Bunol run red — not with blood, but with tomatoes.  The event dates back to 1945.  That year, a group of people who wanted to participate in a parade were prevented from doing so, and in retaliation, grabbed some tomatoes off a local vegetable stand and took aim. The next year, perhaps noting the fun, others returned to the same spot — bringing their own tomatoes with them. This repeated annually and a tradition was born.

Now, tens of thousands come for the fight, know as La Tomatina, preparing to throw tons — by some estimate, 120 tons — of tomatoes at each other. The town installs a greased pole with a ham at the top, and brings five or so trucks into the streets, each carrying part of the culinary payload, and these thousands of combatants wait.  At 10 AM, the first challenge begins: someone — anyone — has to climb the pole, knocking the ham off its top. Once the ham is released, officials fire a rocket into the air and soon after, hundreds of thousands of tomatoes become projectiles, with everyone a fair target for their pulpy wrath — there is no such thing as an innocent passerby.

An hour later, a second rocket fires into the sky, signaling the end of La Tomatina. But the damage — at least to the thrown produce — is enormous, with the streets and people covered in red.  To the buildings, the harm is minimal — and, in fact, La Tomatina may be a net positive. Fire trucks come through the streets, hosing down everything (and everyone) they can, and because of the acidity of the tomatoes, the buildings come out cleaner than they were beforehand. Inefficient, but perhaps effective.

A thirty-slide gallery of photos from La Tomatina can be found on LIFE’s website, here.


Bonus fact: In The Beatles Anthology, drummer Ringo Starr asserted that the original opening verse of “With a Little Help From My Friends” (which Paul McCartney wrote with John Lennon, but Starr sang) was “What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?” Starr changed the second line to “Would you stand up and walk out on me?” out of fear that he would, in fact, sing out of tune, and the audience would take aim at him with rotten tomatoes.

From the ArchivesFruits and Vegetables (and Prank Callers, Too!): Why tomatoes (and, for that matter, cucumbers) are both a fruit and a vegetable.

RelatedThe Beatles Anthology, by The Beatles.