BOOM! A loud cannon fires into the hot August morning in the Spanish town of Buñol. I assume a marching parade is about to make a grand entrance into the main square, but instead, it’s a caravan of dump trucks. These aren’t just any dump trucks, though; they’re filled with 150,000 overripe tomatoes — ammunition for one of the world’s ultimate food fights, La Tomatina.
It started as a vegetable-armed squabble amongst youths in 1945. Since then, La Tomatina has evolved into an annual tradition in this sleepy town in the province of Valencia. Today, it’s is a massive festival almost as popular as Pamplona’s San Fermin Festival — the raucous gathering best known for the Running of the Bulls. Held the last Wednesday of every August, La Tomatina now attracts more than 50,000 tomato-slinging participants — so many that in 2013, the town started charging ticket fees to cover the costs of tomatoes.
I’d arrived in Buñol with my friend Jack by train from the city of Valencia earlier that morning. Looking around, I saw several “teams” of foreigners representing their countries, social cliques, or odd whims — maple leaf-clad Canadians, Brits in tuxedos, Aussies in sombreros dressed as banditos. Despite the huge influx of outsiders, we eventually encountered excited Spaniards, which made me feel less guilty about being a part of this noisy, touristy spectacle in what otherwise would be a peaceful town.
“TOMATINA! TOMATINA!!” chanted of the crazed crowd in the town square, followed by a couple of rounds of “Buñol! Buñol!” Beach balls bounced off the exterior walls. From terraces and roofs above, local spectators joined in on the fun by spilling buckets of water on the crowds from above.
More chants ensued. More madness. And then that cannon fired.
Food fighters positioned on the trucks started throwing their ammunition out to the streets with an unfair advantage. Eventually the mass of vegetables (fruits if you want to get technical) spilled out on the square, and thus began an all out tomato war, confined within five small blocks. Tomatoes were flung in the air, speeding up, down, left, right, forward, backw…SMACK…and sometimes right in my face. Fortunately I was wearing goggles for protection, not only from the impact, but to keep the juice from getting into my eyes.
When you get attacked by tomatoes, you fight back with tomatoes, and so Jack and I made our way into the battle zone armed mostly with slimy bits, but with a few whole tomatoes. We threw them any way that we could. It was so crowded there wasn’t much room for our arms to swing overhand. In fact, there was barely enough room to move, and we had to fight the pushes and shoves simply to stay upright and prevent ourselves from being stampeded and crushed by the mob — or, worse, drowned in a pool of tomato sauce. As more tomatoes turned into pulp, we collectively turned to other items to throw: lost flip-flops, soaked t-shirts, and, at one point, a sloppy tomato sauce-soaked hairpiece that landed right in front of me.
After about an hour, another cannon fired, signifying the end of the fight. Rivers of tomato juice started to flow down the hilly streets. Guys slid down them as if they were on a giant Slip ‘n Slide. The crowds started to thin out as people dispersed to the dozens of after-parties, allowing others to stay and play in the red slop like kids playing in snow. Some alleys were so thick with the disgusting salsa that you could almost swim in it. Jack and I surveyed the damage, wading through it all, as locals started the arduous task of cleaning up. The official cleaning crew hit the streets shortly thereafter, pushing the tomato remnants down the drains. Hoses sprayed down stained walls. Amazingly, the whole town center was squeaky clean in a couple of hours, as if nothing had ever happened.
That evening, washed up and back in Valencia, Jack and I met up with some friends for dinner, which included salad with tomatoes. As I ate them, I knew intimately, as well as intuitively, that tomatoes were better digested in my stomach than smeared all over my body or dripping inside my ear canal. They were delicious, but, I have to admit, eating them was not nearly as much fun as chucking them across the table would have been.