September 20, 2008

Civic Duty Present in Food Fights

By Ken Newton

Some bugs of nearly microscopic size held a convention this year on my tomato plants.

Not sure why my modest garden got chosen for this gathering, but their insistent sucking of moisture from the vines left an autumn- like bearing by early August.

In spite of the intended remedies applied, the bugs showed an almost admirable heartiness. Small enough that hundreds could fit on a dime, they almost seemed festive in their leaf-destroying revelry.

The impact of this never quite matched my anxiety. Tomatoes continue to come in ample numbers, and they taste as flavorful as any I remember. They bless salads and sauces, salsas and sandwiches.

We grow acidic in their presence.

Without falling into nationalism, I submit my uses of this bounty are more constructive than the ones of Bunol, Spain. Last week, folks there indulged in a decades-old tradition of pelting one another with tomatoes.

According to a Web site devoted to Spanish culture, the tradition began in 1945 when two carnival goers got into a fight with a tomato stand nearby. Anyone with knowledge of cinematic slapstick can guess the rest of the history.

The warring parties showed up the next August carrying their own tomatoes. Sort of like the Jets and the Sharks, only with produce.

Civic leaders in the town of 9,500 stopped the tomato-throwing melee for a number of years. Then, in 1959, they gave in to public demand and sanctioned it as an official celebration.

On Wednesday, about 40,000 people crowded the town to take part. They showed up with safety goggles -- all right, some of them were swim masks -- and let fly 113 tons of ripe tomatoes.

At the after-party, no one ordered a Bloody Mary.

Different places on the planet have different traditions. Some cross the line that divides cultural oddity and general weirdness. Those self-flagellation rituals held in some foreign locales might be time-honored, but the split skin and contusions sure don't lend themselves to brisk funnel-cake sales.

As harvest approaches, many Missouri communities hold festivals to celebrate some native crop.

The first 20 Septembers of my life, I was present for an event called the Cotton Carnival. A girl in my high-school class was crowned Miss Cotton our senior year. The title came with a sash that looked to be made of silk.

A town to the south had a Soybean Festival, and another had, if memory serves, a Purple Hull Pea Festival.

In East Prairie, Mo., where the Sweet Corn Festival and the Tour de Corn are held in July, they give thanks no one wants to begin a cob-throwing tradition.

Hereabouts, the signature festival celebrates not a crop but heritage. Trails West!, held a couple of weeks ago, focuses on art and music but does its part in recalling the role St. Joseph played in the country's expansion.

For a time, an alternative festival took place the same weekend, which caused much civic consternation and side taking. It had a similar bearing to other local squabbles -- library locations, museum allocations -- that dragged on beyond the point of useful discussion.

In those cases, a deciding food fight might have been preferable to what actually transpired.

Ken Newton's column runs on Sunday and Tuesday.

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