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La Tomatina's 70th anniversary — and its big, messy secret

La Tomatina in 2013, looking messy.
La Tomatina in 2013, looking messy.
Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Today, August 26, is (supposedly) the 70th anniversary of La Tomatina, the yearly Spanish tomato-throwing festival that attracts tens of thousands to the tiny town of Buñol, Spain. There, they throw tomatoes, get messy, and clean off in the river. It's a quaint village festival that's supposed to show the quirky character of the locals. That's probably why it was selected as a Google Doodle.

The problem with that romantic myth? Buñol doesn't grow any tomatoes, and tickets, ranging from around $12 to $75, are sold by a company called Spaintastic.

The history of La Tomatina is a lot like any food fight — it's a little bit of fun that got way out of hand.

When La Tomatina began — and how it grew

Two revelers fight in 2009.

Two revelers fight in 2009.

Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

It doesn't help that La Tomatina's beginnings are appropriately messy.

No one really knows how it began, and the origin story is, at best, a myth. In 1995, the Wall Street Journal provided one of the best guesses (and one of the first articles about the festival):

Like many Spanish festivals, the celebration was originally a religious one, to honor Bunol's patron saint, San Luis Bertran. One year -- either 1944 or 1945 -- there was a tussle during a procession and some boys tossed tomatoes. A few say it was prompted by village rivalries. Some say it was a joke. But others claim it stemmed from unhappiness with Francisco Franco's reign following Spain's civil war.

"This village was against Franco," says Miguel Sierra Galaraza, an amateur historian in Bunol. "Throwing tomatoes at the priest and mayor was a way to protest against authority." Though banned several times in the 1950s, the tradition survived, eventually becoming the centerpiece of the town's two-week celebration.

Over the years, it joined Spain's pantheon of festivals, from the running of the bulls at Pamplona to hot-coal walking in San Pedro Manrique.

Buñol's connections to tomatoes were always sloppy at best. The town was known for making cement, not for growing the squishy fruit. With fewer than 10,000 residents, Buñol always required imported tomatoes. In 1995, according to the Wall Street Journal, those tomatoes came from the 500-mile-away province of Extremadura. The town continues to truck in tomatoes today, and even if Buñolians wanted to grow their own tomatoes, they wouldn't have enough to supply the festival.

That unmeetable tomato demand is part of the reason the festival had to change: Buñol couldn't keep up with the world's tomato-throwing fever. And that transformed a local tradition into an international tourist trap.

The media catches on, and the food fight gets out of control

A packed La Tomatina crowd in 2014

A packed La Tomatina crowd in 2014.

Evrim Aydin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the mid-'90s, Buñol started appearing in Western media. In addition to the 1995 Wall Street Journal article, the New York Times first covered "The Running of the Tomatoes" in 1997 (the latter cited a 1983 television broadcast as helping the tomato festival turn into a phenomenon). From there, La Tomatina became a sort of standard-bearer for a mid-'90s Lonely Planet aesthetic: quirky, nonthreatening, fiercely local, and great material for impressing all your friends back home.

As La Tomatina grew in popularity over the ensuing decades, it inspired imitators around the world, including many in America. In 2009, Reno, Nevada, started a tomato fight tradition (the tomatoes hail from California), and a company called Tomato Battle sponsors food fights all over the country (it claims to buy only tomatoes that can't be eaten). With the commercialization of those events, tomato capitalism has gotten pretty sophisticated: At the first New York Tomato Battle in 2013, Tide handed out stain removal capsules to all the participants.

So Buñol has had to keep up with the rapid growth of its quirky festival. Though the cost of the tomatoes had been relatively low for the town (through most of the '90s and '00s, it stayed in the mid-$10,000s), when La Tomatina's attendance grew, so did its costs. As the Daily Telegraph reported in 2013, attendance had swelled to an unmanageable — and possibly dangerous — 50,000 people. The festival was overrun by Japanese, Australian, and British tourists (along with a smattering of Americans), and Buñol decided to charge a fee, both to reduce attendance and to pay for a hefty support staff of more than 200 people.

Is La Tomatina still worth it?

La Tomatina and other tomato fights have lost some of their quirky flair and become closely regulated by city councils, are fully stocked with tomato-themed merch, and charge admission fees. So is it still worth it for Buñol?

Opinions probably vary. Like all Spanish festivals, local pride commingles with a happy profit opportunity — Buñol is now world-famous, and that can bring in a lot of cash. That said, it's not a purely commercial affair. The city of Buñol saves 5,000 La Tomatina tickets for residents to make sure they can take part.

But there's one other secret about La Tomatina that might make the festival, despite the fees, security staff, and T-shirts, worth it in the end. As the Wall Street Journal reported in that original 1995 article, when La Tomatina ends, workers blast away the juice and skin using high-powered hoses.

It turns out that the acid from the tomatoes has a curious effect on the pavement: It makes it shine. And that's still true today.