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Tomato Slinging in Spain Sparks Food Fight Trend

Tomato Slinging in Spain Sparks Food Fight Trend

A food fight in school would send you straight to detention. But on the streets of at least one Spanish town, it’s cause for celebration. The last Wednesday in August is one of the messiest holidays in the world: La Tomatina. In the center of Buñol, a small town near Valencia, more than 45,000 people let loose on each other Wednesday with 160 tons of fresh tomatoes in an hour-long festival of mayhem. The Guardian has a great photo gallery on this year’s chaos.

A bright-red food fight might sound like more trouble than it’s worth for a village — after all, the huge crowds of rowdy tomato-splattered foreigners have been known to quadruple the local population of 10,000. And every year La Tomatina unleashes a fresh bout of hand-wringing over the waste of good food, especially now that Spain’s economic boom years are a thing of the past.

But the sleepy hamlet has learned to milk the tourist influx: Tour operators sell a host of packages with tickets to the festival starting at 99 pounds and rising, and hotels and local businesses also profit.

In fact, the town gets such an economic boost from its association with La Tomatina that other cities are emulating the idea with their own quirky regional festivals, like a “wine fight” in the northern Spanish town of Haro. Cities in Chile, Colombia, South Korea, and India have also held tomato festivals, often in cooperation with Buñol, helping increase publicity for the original.

Even better, Buñol makes money off of advertisements for films that feature the tomato fight. Back in 2002 the city registered the festival as a brand, so when companies like Samsung use La Tomatina for their advertisements, they pay for the privilege. Between rights and hotel fees, a Tomatina film shoot can generate around $335,000 for the town.

No one is quite sure how the tradition began. Local lore has it that the festival was first inspired in 1945, perhaps when a street fight collided with a grocer’s stall. It also may have started as a practical joke on a musician, or a protest against city council.

Whatever its origin, the townspeople enjoyed throwing tomatoes so much, they began to do it every year at the end of tomato season. The festival was eventually banned under Francisco Franco’s rule because it had no religious significance, but it was reinstated after his death in the mid-1970s and the ad-hoc gathering became increasingly professionalized in 1980s, with the city council taking over. After the festival ends, fire trucks spray down the pulp-covered streets–the acidity of the tomatoes is said to thoroughly disinfect the cobblestones.

And while tomato slinging may be messy — not to mention wasteful — it’s certainly safer than another well-known Spanish festival that’s also a perennial target for criticism: Pamplona’s running of the bulls.

Photo credit: aaroncorey/Flickr