I’m assuming that most of you missed it. I missed it too; the difference is that while I knew it was coming up, you probably didn’t. When I describe it to you, you can decide how disappointed you are about not being there to experience it in person.
We saw some amazing things while we lived in Spain this year, the most memorable of which was the spectacle of Las Fallas. The scale of the festival was beyond anything I had previously experienced. But I have learned that Spain does larger-than-life in a lot of ways. The late August festival La Tomatina is a case in point. Here’s what I know about it:
La Tomatina takes place every year on the last Wednesday of August in the small town of Buñol, almost 40 kilometers west of the city of Valencia. Tracing its origins back to 1945 and an energetic food fight in the town square during a parade, the event persisted against early official attempts to ban it, and periods when participants were arrested. At some point, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” seems to have become the philosophy, and in 1980 the town began organizing the event.
These days the schedule goes something like this: in the days before the last Wednesday, maybe 20 to 40 thousand people show up in this town of around 9 thousand plus, ready to party–people cook paella over wood fires in the streets, and there’s likely to be a lot of drinking. Early Wednesday morning merchants do what they can to cover and protect their buildings. Lots of tarps get strung along the sides of the streets.
The first official feature of La Tomatina is the climbing of “el palo jabón,” a pole generously soaped to make ascent as difficult as possible. At the top of the pole is a ham (jamón in Spanish–I don’t know if the jabón/jamón connection features here, or whether it’s just that Spaniards are wild about their jamón), and when the triumphant climber manages to get the ham off the pole, the firing of a cannon signals that chaos may commence.
What follows involves an unfathomable number of tomatoes (some say as many as 130 tons), carried in by dump trucks, and about an hour of everyone seeing red on a grand scale. Eye protection is recommended–I imagine that street venders do a brisk trade in swim goggles during the run-up to the event.
After that second shot is fired, “no tomatoes may be thrown,” according to the official rules. And then it’s time to clean up. Fire hoses go to work on the tomato juice rivers and lakes, participants use hoses provided by locals or head to the pool of “los peñones” (the boulders) for their ablutions. It is said that the acidic tomato bath contributes to the cobblestone streets being thoroughly clean by the end. I guess that’s what you’d want to tell yourself, right?
There are a few more rules you’ll want to be aware of: tomatoes must be squashed before throwing, to avoid injuries; only tomatoes may be thrown (I don’t know if there are major Spanish festivals in which to indulge a desire to hurl other produce); “the festival doesn’t allow ripping off T-shirts;” and you have to make way for the trucks. In my experience, rules tend to come about based on past experience (ask me about my Aunt Jeannine’s rule, “no ropes around the neck”). If the video clips I’ve seen are any indication, they may need to elaborate on the T-shirt-ripping rule–lots of people seemed to be helping others out of their clothing. Perhaps they wanted to prevent tomato stains?
If you have a great food fight story to share, even if it’s not on quite this epic a scale, I want to hear about it. Do tell!