The Tomato Romp Festival on the East Side of Milwaukee is home to the first ever rotten tomato fight in North America, and this year all proceeds from the battle benefited the Hunger Task Force.
The tenth annual Tomato Romp festival took place on September 10 and hosted a range of activities, including a Best Bloody Mary competition, live music and a sneak preview of the Black Cat Alley art mural project.
Located on Milwaukee’s East Side near North Avenue and organized by the East Side Business Improvement District (BID), the festival pinnacle culminated in the final event of the day, the tomato fight.
Participants paid $10 to enter a cage with 8,000 pounds of rotten tomatoes for a fight that lasted less than 15 minutes. Many participants came in the competitive spirit and dressed in tomato-themed costumes, or hazmat suits for the ultimate protection.
The tomatoes used in the fight were leftovers from harvest season, rotten and unusable, and were donated by La Magnolia Tomato companies. Otherwise, no tomatoes were harmed in the making of the fight.
All proceeds from the admission tickets went to the event’s partner, the Hunger Task Force. The fight raised over $4,000 dollars for the organization in just ten minutes.
“This year we wanted to highlight that the festival is supporting Hunger Task Force and helping to end hunger in our community,” said Erin Stenum, Marketing Director of the East Side BID. “We wanted to work with Hunger Task Force because they help supply and stock a lot of the organizations that are in our community. And in terms of return on the dollar, 100% goes back to the community.”
Before the fight, participants registered for both the Best Bloody Mary contest and the tomato fight in the Beans and Barley parking lot just off North Avenue. All elements of the festival invited participants to interact with the neighborhood. During the Bloody Mary contest, for example, visitors sampled Bloody Marys at 12 bars and restaurants around the East Side, encouraging them to walk around and experience the neighborhood. Live music was also provided on the corner of Farwell and North Avenue.
A half hour before the fight, Paradigm Drum Line led a procession down Kenilworth street to the site of the tomato cage on Ivanhoe Place. The procession passed Black Cat Alley, home to a public art mural project that will have its grand opening on September 18. The East Side BID arranged a sneak preview of five murals with its creator Stacey Williams-Ng, specifically for the Tomato Romp festival.
The highlight of Tomato Romp, the fight, was inspired by the La Tomatina tomato fight in Spain and was the first rotten tomato fight in North America. It has since been copied by cities across the country. Jim Plaisted, executive director of the East Side BID, was present at the founding of festival.
“It really was a unique idea,” said Plaisted. “We thought, if we’re going to throw tomatoes at people for an hour, we probably should do something good. So we’ve been donating to groups that fight hunger ever since.”
Not only does the event help to fight hunger, it also celebrates the East Side community, which is home to iconic Milwaukee businesses like Beans and Barley, Educators Credit Union, the Oriental Theatre, and Von Trier.
“What we’re trying to do with this event is show off the neighborhood,” said Plaisted. “This is a very special neighborhood historically and otherwise, and this event is a great chance for us to showcase our bars and restaurants and now this wonderful public art project. And we get to help fight hunger. We’re also bringing people in regionally that aren’t familiar with this neighborhood or haven’t been here for a while. We want to show people what a great, funky urban neighborhood this is.”
Besides raising money to combat hunger, Plaisted’s favorite part of the Tomato Romp festival is the fight. He has witnessed all ten annual fights and he felt it has never gotten old.
“My favorite part is people walking out of the cage after doing it for the first time. They feel like they’ve ran a marathon or conquered Everest. They can’t believe they did it and survived,” said Plaisted.
This year, the fight was intense. Two teams formed, each lining up on each side of the cage, where they lobbed tomatoes at each other and also at the audience. The event lasted for about 10 minutes, when most of the tomatoes had turned to mush.
After the fight, a first-time participant said, “I felt like I was in the civil war.”
Chris Williams, a fourth-time fighter, confirmed that the tomato fight is often painful. Dressed in a red tunic with green hat, and covered in tomato carnage, Williams described the experience.
“It hurts, but it’s beautiful. The pain is somehow beautiful. There’s this camaraderie in there too. I’ve seen individuals I see once a year at this thing, but nowhere else in Milwaukee. It’s very special,” said Williams.
First-time tomato fighter Jennifer Wauters enjoyed the fight and was inspired by the fight’s connection with Hunger Task Force.
“Everyone was a little timid at first, but it was better once we all charged at each other,” said Wauters. “It was a great time overall. And it’s a good way to help fight hunger, while you’re fighting other people.”