Why do people throw tomatoes?


Performers were being hit with these 2,000 years ago! See more pictures of heirloom tomatoes.
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Pelting unlucky victims with rotten produce is one of our oldest forms of expression, older even than tomato cultivation. Rotten tomatoes are often associated with Shakespeare's Globe Theater in Elizabethan London, but in actuality, tomatoes were still uncommon and weren't even mentioned in the first English cookbook until 1752, nearly 150 years later.

However, the practice of throwing produce predated the tomato entirely. The first reference came in A.D. 63 when Vespasianus Caesar Augustus was hit with turnips in the midst of a riot in Hadrumetum.

Rotten eggs were also a weapon of contempt used in religious and political protest. Documents dating back to the 18th century refer to people throwing rotten eggs at persecuted Methodists on the Isle of Man. The practice also made its way to the New World, as shown in a speech by Frederick Douglass who recalls bad eggs being lobbed to break up antislavery meetings. Food's use as a weapon was traditionally a product of availability and cost.

Find out when the first actor faced an overripe tomato on the next page.

Tomatoes Become the Perfect Weapon

Imagine the rotten produce that was thrown in ancient theaters.
Imagine the rotten produce that was thrown in ancient theaters.
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Considering their size and how easily they could be gripped, it made sense that tomatoes would eventually make it to the main stage. The first reference to throwing these rotten vegetables at bad stage acts came in an 1883 New York Times article after John Ritchie was hit with a barrage of tomatoes and rotten eggs by an unpleasant audience in New York. "[A] large tomato thrown from the gallery struck him square between the eyes and he fell to the stage floor just as several bad eggs dropped upon his head."

Obviously, tomato throwing stands as a form of audience participation that's unacceptable by modern standards. But social norms throughout history meant audiences could convey their opinions, whether good or bad. Today, theater-goers typically sit quietly as if watching a movie, but before other forms of entertainment were available a rowdy crowd chanted, booed and -- occasionally -- threw rotten produce.

Learn about the biggest food fight in the world on the next page.

La Tomatina Tomato Fight

Is the crowd carrying tomatoes?
Is the crowd carrying tomatoes?
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La Tomatina Tomato Fight in Bunol, Spain, celebrates the tomato harvest with a good old-fashioned food fight. The event dates back to 1944, but it was officially recognized in 1952. The world's largest tomato fight takes place the last Wednesday in August each year, and the week-long festival hosts nearly 30,000 people.

Today, an evolved theater crowd avoids throwing rotten produce from the audience, whether the show is entertaining or not. And pelting modern politicians with turnips would likely result in jail time. But even still, the rotten tomato reigns as society's nonlethal weapon of choice. And these overripe tidbits have certainly left their mark on center stage.

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Sources

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  • Asimov, Eric. "Gentlemen, Choose Your Sausage." New York Times. (Nov. 11, 2010)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9402E7D8103CF936A25751C0A96E958260
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  • "The First Roman Emperors." RomanBritain.org. (Nov. 10, 2010)http://www.roman-britain.org/people/vespasian.htm
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  • Douglass, Frederick. "Frederick Douglass The Colored Orator." Documenting the American South. (Nov. 12, 2010)http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/holland/holland.html