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A historical food fight

If you’ve never smelled 25,000 tomatoes at once, trust me when I tell you the stench can be overwhelming.

That quantity of tomatoes was there for “The Flying Tomato Smash and Bash,” an American rendition of a small-town Spanish tradition called “La Tomatina,” which is literally a bunch of strangers throwing tomatoes at each other for no reason other than having fun.

As soon as I arrived at the Tobacco Road Bar in downtown Miami on Saturday, the smell was immediately noticeable and entirely unavoidable. It somehow simultaneously smelled sour from sitting in the sun all day and sweet.

Approximately 500 people showed for the event at Tobacco Road, which had a fenced-off area in an adjacent parking lot. For whatever reason, the area felt a lot like the Eliminator course at the end of “American Gladiators.” Other than trash cans filled with water for rinsing and the piles of tomatoes, the only items in the Tomatina area were solid roadway barriers meant for hiding behind for those who needed a break from getting hit in the face with vegetables.

Not surprisingly, the event drew mostly college kids, including myself. The anticipation of standing at the gates waiting for the tomato-throwing was an electric moment. No one quite knew what to expect because organized tomato fights aren’t exactly as common as pickup basketball games, but many came prepared.

Some participants had the foresight to bring goggles or scuba masks, but most didn’t. Then, of course, there were those that took it to the extreme. Spotted in the crowd was a man wearing an Iron Man mask with a Captain America shield, standing next to a guy in a head-to-toe hazardous materials suit.

A rowdy, but controllable, group of revelers turned into pure chaos almost instantaneously with the announcement that the tomato fight was officially underway.

A mad dash to the piles of tomatoes began, with the first arrivers grabbing a handful of ammunition and dashing for the traffic barriers, which immediately became bunkers where one could throw, but not be thrown at.

Anarchy reigned supreme as in a span of 10 minutes, it devolved from a tomato fight to a tomato paste fight to a ketchup fight.

Simply put, people went nuts. The middle area became home to those who just wanted to dance as chants of “Ole!” broke out like we were members of some strange cult of tomato lovers.

The floor, which was asphalt minutes earlier, became as slippery as ice with tomato pulp everywhere. I watched a man take a running start, slide on his stomach like he was on an actual Slip ‘N Slide, then make a “tomato angel.”

Yet not everyone had as much fun as that unknown man, as some just found it weird and wasteful.

“It seemed like everyone was having fun, but I thought it was kind of silly,” said participant Heather Miller. “I was kind of done after about five minutes. … I was just in there by myself getting hit in the face with tomatoes.”

The perimeters remained a battle zone with no clear winners as some wanted to throw tomatoes randomly, while others wanted to see their victims and threw directly at people. Early in the fight, I took a tomato directly to the eye socket from no more than five feet away, but I didn’t get angry or retaliate.

For most, the situation was too bizarre and too much fun to care about getting hit. The best option was to pay it forward and hit someone else, rather than going for direct revenge. Those on the outside of the fence thinking tomato fights are a spectator sport and those with cameras became easy targets.

People aimed for the cameras as if everyone had decided if you weren’t living it in that exact moment, you were missing out. And you were.

It was a strange experience, but that doesn’t mean a bad one. The citizens of Miami seemed to enjoy watching tomato-covered people spread out from Tobacco Road to go home and take a very strange shower that surely clogged drains all across the city.

For those who had previously participated in the event in Spain, Miami’s version didn’t quite live up to its counterpart.

“I did (La Tomatina) in Spain,” said German Munoz, another participant. “This is a tenth of the Spanish version. It doesn’t compare.”

The injustice of it all is that in my everyday life, I don’t even eat tomatoes. I don’t put them on burgers or salads, but it didn’t stop me from having fun. If you entered the event with an open mind and a fun attitude, it was impossible to leave without a smile.

It was also impossible to leave with a clean shirt.