Rotten tomato free-for-all:just squishy, chaotic fun

THE REAL DIRT

October 12, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Is there a worse garden chore than cleaning up spoiled tomatoes at summer's end? Come frost, back yards are littered with blackened tomatoes that reek of vegetative death. Worse, when you try to pick it up, the fruit disintegrates on contact. Yuk.

Disposing of tomato waste is no fun, unless you live in Leverett, Mass., where folks look forward to the first killing frost.

Then they gather their tomatoes in a field in the center of town and hurl the rotten fruits at each other until all are destroyed. The tomatoes, that is. Then everyone shakes hands, goes home and does laundry.

And the debris?

"Nature takes care of that," says one local. "It's biodegradeable weaponry."

Townspeople call it "The Mother of All Battles Tomato Fight," and this year's event in early October was a rousing success. Forty men, women and children threw rank tomatoes for nearly an hour, filling the air with red. Combatants were merciless. When ,, one man fell to the ground, others poured tomatoes down his pants.

"It was a glorious, get-out-your-aggressions workout," says David Mager, whose homestead, E-I-E-I-O farm, supplied many of the 1,000 tomatoes.

"People's arms were charley-horsed afterward," says Mr. Mager. was 45 minutes of solid fighting. In actual combat time, we probably outlasted Desert Storm."

The tomato war galvanized Leverett (pop. 2,000), an unlikely site for such shenanigans. The town, home of America's first peace pagoda, is peopled by aging hippies and graying peaceniks, some of whom participated in the melee.

The oldest warrior was Dan Bennett, 60, a retired philosophy professor from Brown University who runs the town's co-op market.

"I didn't intend to get involved," says Mr. Bennett. "But it looked like goofy, uncomplicated fun.

"I love spontaneous anarchy," he adds. "I hit one guy right in the head."

Mr. Bennett himself escaped unscathed, having made a shield from the lid of a 5-gallon tofu bucket.

The tomato fight, which began at high noon, drew 100 onlookers, including several reporters. A number of bystanders were struck as the battle raged.

"There was collateral damage, as [Gen. H. Norman] Schwarzkopf would say," notes Mr. Mager. "With each impact, the wind carried a pink mist toward the crowd. Despite the fact the tomatoes were vintage, the air didn't smell that bad."

The combatants, each of whom paid a minimal "war tax" to compete, were given special armbands and split into teams, the Jet Stars and Supersonics, two popular tomato varieties.

Dress was informal. Many people wore ponchos, although one man arrived in long white underwear and another wore a karate outfit and Kabuki mask. One man galloped in on horseback, a load of tomatoes strapped to the saddle.

Mr. Mager, who wore a white dress shirt with French cuffs and white pants, was hit repeatedly. His outfit was slow to recover.

"My clothes are now on their third pre-soak," he says.

Competition was to include several war games, including a jousting tournament in which rivals on mountain bikes race toward each other armed only with rotten tomatoes; and submarine warfare, an event in which blindfolded contestants try to splat each other using only their hearing to locate the enemy.

Alas, those plans were scrapped when the battle broke into a free-for-all, much to the chagrin of Mr. Mager, captain of the Supersonics.

"I had studied assaults of the Romans against the Carthaginians, but this was a series of melees and forays without strategy," he says.

The riotous climax surprised no one.

"People were just chomping at the bit for mayhem," says Steve Adams, leader of the Jet Stars. "It was just a gloppy free-for-all."

The 44-year-old Mr. Adams, a movie screenwriter, says he had "no sense of heroism or fear" during the debacle. "I was reminded of when I was a hoodlum kid and my friends and I went on a window-breaking frenzy.

"I must have gotten hit by 30 tomatoes. It was chaos."

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