Midwest Tomato Fest: It was joyous, albeit stinky

A sea of red at Tomato Fest
A sea of red at Tomato Fest
Photo by Taylor Paino

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Massive tomato fight invades downtown Minneapolis Saturday
The Midwest Tomato Fest [SLIDESHOW]

Last Saturday, thousands swarmed a parking lot on Portland Avenue in downtown Minneapolis with one mission: To throw tomatoes at each other at the second-annual Midwest Tomato Fest. Stinky, overripe, inedible tomatoes donated by farmers from Arkansas coated participants' bodies, and made their clothes reek of rotten food.

The fight, inspired by an event in Spain called La Tomatina, was founded by a few St. Thomas dudes. It began after an afternoon of booze-soaked dancing to Top 40 jams. Beloved local food trucks like World Street Kitchen served up eats that would prepare these scantily clad bodies for war.

I was there, among the Midwest Tomato Fest thousands. With the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace in my heart, I launched myself into the saucy, chunky fray.

Midwest Tomato Fest: It was joyous, albeit stinky
Patrick Stephenson pre-battle

The first step when preparing for a tomato fight is to find clothes you don't mind destroying. I chose a so-so-quality tank top from Target, a pair of H&M shorts with a busted top button, and my tennis shoes. Step two is to find safety goggles and put them on, tightly. Your face will get smashed during the fight, so you don't want your precious peepers feeling the brunt of a tomato's impact. Step three is to pack a waterproof fanny pack with your valuables -- phone, wallet, watch, keys -- as all of these must be protected. Finally, prepare yourself to get hit (though it doesn't hurt too bad). Now, wade into the tomatoes. Stretch your arms out. Be fearless. It's a battlefield you're entering, and you have work to do.

I pedaled up to Tomato Fest at 5:30 p.m., as the rhymes of Kanye West and Jay-Z echoed off Mill City's condo canyons. Inebriated people in various states of undress gyrated to the music. With LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It" blasting around me, I explored the crowd. Girls in bikinis dry-humped each other. Shirtless guys in sunglasses pumped their fists into the air. "Party With Sluts" read someone's T-shirt. "I should've taken a shot or three of whiskey before this," I tweeted. The scene was a tad too primal and frathouse for this introvert to handle sober and alone. Regardless, I shielded my eyes from the sun, and stood in their midst while, fenced off and guarded, a few billion tomatoes awaited nearby. An elephant in the room, summoning us to battle.

Midwest Tomato Fest: It was joyous, albeit stinky
Photo by Taylor Paino

Before you start worrying about food waste, you should know that the Midwest Tomato Fest has a social conscience. All tomatoes are farmer-donated garbage produce that, if they weren't being used as weapons, would end up in a landfill. "[We use] only overripe and spoiled fruit," say event organizers on their website, "so we don't waste any tomatoes that might otherwise be on our bruschetta." In addition, the party benefits organizations dedicated to ending hunger. This year's beneficiary was Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless, a group that, according to its website, "helps food and shelter providers fill needs that would otherwise go unmet."

At 6 p.m., everyone turned from the Tomato Fest's rockin' stage. I joined the revelers as they pushed toward the tomatoes and laughed with them as hoses wet us before we even got dirty. Soon, having pushed farther, we realized we stood atop the tomatoes. I pulled my goggles down, ready for battle, and immediately got clocked. Fruit flew. Produce chunks began to amass on my tank top and shorts. Through my goggles, I saw tomatoes flying above us, the sky a beautiful Minnesota summer blue. Among a thousand pushing bodies, I reached toward the ground and picked up a tomato. I threw it into the crowd like the outfielder I'd been as a kid, aiming not for home base but someone's face. I laughed crazily. Throwing tomatoes felt just fine.

Midwest Tomato Fest: It was joyous, albeit stinky
Post battle carnage

I got into it. My throwing arm found tomato after tomato. Some I retrieved from the ground, disheveled fruits someone's flip-flops had stomped. Some I intercepted and threw back. I got dirtier. The tomato juice soaked my hair and seeped around my goggles and into my eyes, stinging them. My goggles were foggy and chunk-coated by the end. I couldn't see, but my hands found and flung. I don't know if I hit anyone, but I got hit a lot. I learned to dodge, and began to pick up two to three tomatoes at a time.

Eventually, I had enough. I got pushed face-first into someone's butt as I leaned down, and realized I'd tired of battle.

"It was awesome! A rush!" said tomato-stained participant Lynda Welp, whom I interviewed post-fight. She had stood near the front of the tomato crowd at the start, and aimed only for her friends during the fight. "I'll be honest," she said, "the first thing I did was push someone right into the tomatoes -- a big pile of tomatoes as high as your knees. "

Why do people love events like the Tomato Fest? Co-organizer Kevin Walker has a theory. "This is a bucket list event. It's not something you get to experience every day," he says. Situating the event in the heart of downtown Minneapolis puts it "right in our backyard." No longer must we travel to Spain to experience La Tomatina.

Now, we have our own celebration of the tomato.

"Who doesn't have a good friend they want to smash in the face with a tomato?" says Walker. "People want to escape reality after a full week of work, and this event says, 'Don't think about work. Bash random strangers with tomatoes instead.'"

Attendees were more than happy to comply. We smashed and bashed, with tomatoes as weaponry, and then escaped that faux battlefield for reality. It was joyous, albeit stinky.

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