The Colorado Tomato Battle at Dick's Sporting Goods Park Saturday was a mash-up of childhood frivolity and big-kid fun. Though the structure was more formal than the old Tomato Wars between Coloradans and Texans at Twin Lakes, the result was the same: utter chaos and tomato soup.
Denver's event kicked off a season of Tomato Battles that will splatter the U.S. this summer, and I'm going to take you into the heat of the action. Put on your festive costumes, find some safety goggles and get ready for beer, bands and a tomato fight.
Like other Tomato Battle events, the actual fight was preceded by tailgating, boozing, eating, dancing, singing and general merriment. Founders and organizers Max Kraner and Clint Nelson envisioned a fun and fierce event that mixes Spain's famous Tomatina and Germany's Oktoberfest into a saucy day of beer, bands and tomatoes. To get into the spirit of the day and a possible chance to win the costume contest, I dressed up in my armor (or lack thereof) of choice: a foxy football fighter. I left my house feeling strong and confident and sporting a swimsuit under my jersey, but the next few hours surprised even me.
My first glimpses of the event started in the parking lot. Everywhere I went, groups prepared for battle by applying the finishing touches to their costumes and, of course, enjoying a beer or two...or three...or four...before entering the arena. In true sportsmanship, I conducted a lightning-speed meet-and-greet while secretly flouting my ferocity and testing my competition. Though the Tomato Battle doesn't really have teams or a winner, I wanted to gain some allies and feel for potential threats. I quickly realized that everyone was a potential threat, especially the coordinated groups. As a lone ranger, I was going to have to watch my back, front and sides at all times, but getting my face out there might keep me alive for a little longer. After receiving a sturdy, appropriately colored red wrist band, I entered the main field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The crowd started out small at 2 p.m., but everyone was clearly very enthusiastic. I met two girls dressed up as French fries; they had painted their skin yellow, donned French hats with mustaches and stereotypical striped shirts, and sported name tags labeled "Curly" and "Crispy." Once the joke sunk in, they had my vote for best costumes. Other early birds enjoyed the pre-fight entertainment. A live band called Urban Dance Theory filled the area with upbeat covers. The lead singer, a tiny woman dressed in all black complete with elbow-length gloves, rocked her heart out for two hours. She encouraged the crowd to drink and enjoy the day, but nobody needed to be told twice. People gathered in the Cantina, chatting and pumping themselves full of fuel (beer) before things got messy. A tomato-style bean-bag toss entertained the more energized fighters, but most people mingled and showcased their outfits. When the costume contest began, things got wild. The crowd-appointed contest winners earned bragging rights and (drum roll) the coveted opportunity to lead the troops into battle.
Groups lined up next to the stage in a hectic mob of enthusiastic weirdos. I felt right at home between a family of doctors checking their kids' wounds with tomato stethoscopes and the "Lamp Dance" crew dressed in all-white with lamp shades as hats. Due to the flowing beer and crazed costumed crowd, the emcee had a tough job keeping the contest PG. It became a contest of the crazies and sexies with the most creative and more often than not least-clothed competitors receiving the loudest cheers.
Costumes ranged from solo suits like Optimus Prime, Cartman and Tommy the Tomato to group ensembles like the Devil's Threesome at a prom, synchronized swimmers, the Where's Waldo gang, and the Party Boys, who were trying to remake Magic Mike.
Some costumes required a little explanation. A gaggle of girls calling themselves "Get Sauced" as a play on words previewing the approaching battle and their double-fisted drinking.
Then a family consortium appeared in dog outfits -- except for the patriarch figure of the group. He was a skunk spraying the dogs with air freshener from under his striped tail. What removes the smell of skunk? TOMATOES! Once they exposed the genius of the story behind the costumes, I had to switch my vote away from the French fries. The official finalists consisted of a slightly more mainstream crowd, though: The Spartans dressed up like 300 earned lots of cheers with their powerful war cry, and the two girls dressed as vicious vikings dubbed the "F-ing Impalers" scared the audience into applause.
Another group of girls calling themselves "Tomato Tomāto" demonstrated the correct way to say "tomato" -- because only one member walked onto stage on her hands. You're outnumbered, tomāto-sayers, but we still accept you. The reigning champions (as far as costumes went, anyway) were two guys and a girl cleverly calling themselves "Kitchen Warfare." They were scantily clad in metal kitchen instruments -- pots, pans, cookie sheets, cheese graters, whisks and strainers -- and brandishing large utensils and lids while fighting each other before the real battle began.
Once our fearless leaders were officially chosen, we stormed the gates and funneled into the battle field. Throughout the afternoon a light breeze wafted a slightly rancid scent into my nostrils, but it was nothing compared to what I was about to encounter. Inside a gated arena in the parking lot sat our ammo: Yes, 50,000 pounds of rotten tomatoes. Yea, they forgot to tell us about the rotten part. They had been sitting in piles on blacktop in the hot sun for hours, and they stank. Now that I stood frozen in the face of the battle I quickly reassessed my outfit choice. Veterans around me had incorporated swimming and safety goggles into their costumes, while I failed miserably at this level of preparedness. A nose plug and goggles now proved to be entirely necessary. When we got the okay to go, I thought, Oh, well. Here goes. It's about to get messy. I still underestimated how messy. From all sides, people raced to the piles of tomatoes and leaped in to claim their ammo before getting completely covered. I followed suit and only paused for a second before digging my hands into a rotten mass of squishy, white-speckled tomatoes. I flung handful after handful wildly into the mass of people, all the while being plummeted with juicy red balls from every direction. Friends ganged up on enemies and enemies became friends in this every-man-for-himself war. A few green tomatoes had found their way into the mix and one nailed me in the back. I spasmed for a moment before seeking my revenge on another not-so-innocent participant. Some smarter warriors circled the field with plans of attack while I joined the clueless masses and flung mushy handfuls aimlessly. I saw two girls with cups taped on their heads catching flung tomatoes while a guy scurried around, filling a basket with extra supplies. As people turned redder and redder, shirts and unidentifiable articles of clothing filled with tomato slop were flung into the air and blanketed random targets in heavy goo.
By now the entire arena was filled with what looked like tomato soup...except it smelled like vomit. I think next year I'll go as a scuba diver: full-body coverage. Once you were in the battle, however, it was pointless to try and stay clean, so you might as well go all-out. People swam/crawled through the mush and made "tomatina" angels. Others were being tackled right and left or sat on and tormented by friends. We all came together when someone showed up who was too clean. If you were not covered head to toe, you were about to be attacked by a bunch of crazed tomato fiends. But there were also moments of camaraderie: I shared a trashcan lid with two girls as we charged into the center of action. It did little to help the assaults from behind, but I appreciated the allies.
As the battle raged on, storm clouds were blowing in from the west. A mighty blast of thunder momentarily paused the assault. Then war cries broke the silence and the battle raged on. Next to me a guy yelled, "Let's make some salsa!!!!" which was quickly followed by, "Who brought the chips?" A few minutes later, I found a pepper shaker and added some spice to the mix. I never found any chips though.
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After about twenty minutes of warfare, someone on the loudspeaker began telling us to wrap it up before the storm hit. While people slowly shuffled out, I snuck up behind one of the Kitchen Warfare guys and gave him a little tap. As I raced away some warm mush splatted in my hair. I turned to face my new opponent in a battle royale. We circled each other, intermittently hitting the ground like wild apes until I realized I didn't even have any ammo. He held a single, mostly whole tomato in his hand. Then he flung it at me with a defiant look and ran back into the fray.