Milwaukee’s version of the world’s largest food fight

In 1944 in the small Valencian town of Buñol, Spain, a tomatoey tradition was born: “La Tomatina.” At this annual festival, 30,000 people from around the world make their way to the streets of Buñol to throw more than one hundred metric tons of overripe tomatoes at each other.

Thanks to the East Side Business Improvement District, Milwaukee now has its own version of the world’s biggest food fight. The East Side will host its fifth annual Tomato Romp! festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17 on North Avenue between Prospect and Oakland Avenues.

Inspired by Buñol’s La Tomatina festival, the East Side created Tomato Romp! as a free, fall harvest-type festival to keep people interested in the neighborhood.

Tomato Romp! features a bloody mary competition, a special East Side Green Market highlighting tomatoes, a salsa tasting, live performances by local flamenco artist Evan Christian, and, of course, the infamous rotten tomato fight.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., those of legal drinking age can purchase an official Tomato Romp! bloody mary competition ballot at the East Side Green Market for $15 and receive a bloody mary sample and beer chaser from 13 participating East Side establishments, including Hotch-A-Do, Hooligan’s, Replay Sports Bar and Cans Bar and Canteen.

Judging will begin at 3 p.m. and end with the crowning of the East Side’s bloody mary champion and fan favorite. Reigning 2010 fan favorite, Vitucci’s, hopes to win over a few more taste buds with the same age-old family recipe as always.

“We like to show off our bloody mary,” said Frank Vitucci, general manager of Vitcucci’s. “We’ll put ours against anybody’s.”

Vitucci said the secret to victory is in preparation of the competition: Make sure to be fully staffed and ready to pour as many bloodies as possible. A valid secret, considering the East Side sold 1,000 bloody mary ballots at last year’s competition.

And what better way to work off a bloody buzz but by throwing around a few pounds of tomatoes? The rotten tomato fight starts at 4 p.m., with required waivers available to fill out beginning at 10 a.m. at the East Side Green Market. The cost to fight is $5 and comes with a free T-shirt. All proceeds are donated to one or more organizations to help fight hunger.

Jim Plaisted, executive director of the East Side Business Improvement District, said 200 people ages 16 to 60 participated in the fight last year. While 200 participate, more than 500 gather along the other side of the fence to serve as eager spectators.

“What’s interesting to watch is how people walk out,” he said. “It’s like you’re watching them finish their first marathon. They’re hugging each other and saying they can’t believe how good they feel.”

Maglio & Company sponsors the fight each year by providing about 5,000 pounds of tomatoes — about 25 pounds per person.

Maglio & Company’s daily produce process requires the removal of 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of inedible tomatoes daily, said Sam Maglio, president of Maglio & Company. These inedible and unsellable tomatoes are used for the Tomato Romp! fight instead of being thrown away.

Plaisted said it usually only takes about five minutes for 200 people to turn all 5,000 pounds of tomato into a layer of sauce on the ground.

In addition to covering people with tomato sauce, he said the festival aims to bring these people together for a common cause.

“The best thing about Tomato (Romp!) is that we do get people from all over who are not regular visitors,” Plaisted said. “It’s one afternoon to show them what Milwaukee’s East Side has to offer.”

Tomato Romp! takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17 on North Avenue between Prospect and Oakland Avenues. For more info, visit theeastside.org.