How The Tomato Became The Ultimate Protest Food

The average tomato seems harmless enough — all shiny and blank-faced and filled with nutritional goodness. It has been the star of your homemade tomato sauce and 20-minute tomato bisque for years. And, yet, despite its seemingly benign appearance, this fruit has become the go-to weapon of angry crowds and displeased audiences. 

The earliest recorded instance of this use of the tomato occurred in 1883 in New York City. According to The New York Times, an artist in acrobatics, John Ritchie, began his show by doing a somersault, but was pelted by a tomato part-way through his move. He, then, went on to the trapeze where he was once again confronted by a bright red orb, this time striking him right between his eyes. A rapid pelting of tomatoes followed and he was forced to flee for the protection of the ticket office. More modern angry people have carried on the tradition. Vault shares that in May of 1958, displeased soccer fans in Manchester, UK fired tomatoes at the Bolton Wanderers after the team had defeated Manchester United in a Cup Final. And in December 2009, a man threw a tomato at former Alaskan Governor, Sarah Palin, during her book signing in Minnesota (via CBS). 

Yes, over the years, the tomato has been used to express extreme irritation towards performers, athletes, politicians, and more. But how did this noble fruit become an angry messenger for society's disgruntled factions? 

The tomato's squishiness makes it a safer option

One of the tomato's most beloved characteristics — its juiciness — has made it a viable projectile. As Columbia University political science professor, Andrew Gelman, tells Bon Appetit, tomatoes are relatively cheap, can be tossed with ease, and "make a satisfying splat." Plus, they don't usually lead to physical injury. The New York Times agrees, explaining that edible items can be viewed as a harmless weapon by people who perceive themselves to be non-violent. A soft, squishy tomato certainly fits that bill. It's true. Muppet audiences have been pitching tomatoes at Fozzie Bear for years and, yet, he remains unscathed. 

The tomato is also easily accessible and won't be missed (unlike the family's fine China). And throwing them is a fun way to put your fresh tomatoes to good use, especially when it leads to a big gloppy mess. In fact, tomato tossing is so enjoyable that Spain's La Tomatina festival attracts tens of thousands of people from every corner of the earth every year. Once there, the festival's site explains that they can throw their fair share of over "100 metric tons of overripe tomatoes" at one another. 

Admittedly, the tomato is a near-perfect protest food, but that doesn't mean you should keep a few on hand for this purpose. Tossing fruit at performers, politicians, or unsuspecting strangers (outside of a Spanish food-throwing festival) is now deeply frowned upon and may land you in cuffs.