Tomato Slinging in Spain Sparks Food Fight Trend

The town of Buñol has learned how to capitalize on the messiest hour in the Spanish summer.

tomatina
tomatina

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.

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

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.