Milwaukee may be known for its fair share of festivals, but only one is dedicated to a fruit.
Tomato Romp!, Wisconsin’s only tomato festival, returns to Milwaukee’s East Side Saturday, Sept. 14 for a day packed with tastings, food fights and fun. This year marks the festival’s seventh run as it continues to celebrate not only the esteemed produce, but the entire East Side community.
“We got the idea from the famous La Tomatina fight in Spain, and it looked like a great idea,” Andrea Rowe Richards, marketing manager for the East Side Business Improvement District, said. “The East Side is known for celebrating the seasons in a very different way, and it made sense to bring La Tomatina to America.”
The festival’s most popular event is the Rotten Tomato Fight, a caged battle where participants fling tomatoes at opponents until only the juice is left. Last year, 250 people participated in the sold-out event, but this year’s fight hopes to be bigger than ever with a cage built for 500 people and 8,000 pounds of rotten tomatoes courtesy of Maglio & Company.
Lizzy Owen, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences, has been part of the fight for three years and describes the scene as something akin to a storm of tomatoes.
“The juice from the tomatoes is burning your eyes,” she said. “You can taste it in your mouth. It’s matted in your hair. You’re just blindly groping on the ground for every scrap of tomato you can and throwing it at subjects that you don’t even know.”
Tomato enthusiasts taking part in the extreme food fight will also make a difference within the community. Each $10 entrance fee is donated to fight hunger in Milwaukee. The East Side Business Improvement District then matches that amount for an additional charitable grant. Last year, the proceeds were donated to Riverwest Food Pantry and the Kilbourn Park Community Gardens.
Though the experience may be messy, Owen says it is a unique and memorable one.
“For the first 30 or so seconds that the actual fight is going on, it’s super intense, and then afterwards it’s just fun,” she said. “People are sliding around and making angels in the tomato juice … It’s kind of just a wonderful moment to realize that you were a part of something that not a lot of people can say they have participated in.”
The Best Bloody Mary Competition is also a fan favorite at Tomato Romp!. Last year, the judges’ choice for the best concoction came from Yield, an East Side bar owned by Marquette alumni Patrick Kapple along with Tom and Jim Zeisler. Kapple said the secret to the winning recipe came from his own garden.
“I grew a whole bunch of hot peppers – Hungarian black peppers, habaneros, jalapenos, chiles – and I made my own hot sauce that went into the mix,” he said. “It was a bit spicy, but people seemed to really enjoy the fact that it was kind of different. It was more of a fresh flavor with the fresh tomatoes and fresh peppers from my garden.”
Kapple participated in the drink contest for a few years prior to victory.
“I know I make a pretty good Bloody Mary,” he said, “and every year I know I’m really close to winning, so when I won last year, it just felt like, ‘Finally, it’s about time I won.’”
The competition will be stiff for the reigning champion, but Kapple knows there’s more to the contest than the title of Best Bloody Mary.
“It brings in a bunch of people that have never been to the bar before,” he said. “It’s a good marketing tool.”
Other tomato-inspired festivities include a fresh market with locally grown produce, a costume contest, and the new Tomato Chomp Crawl, a tour of nine East Side restaurants all featuring tomato-based dishes. A station will also be set up for a local artist to create a work of tomato art.
“We do like to highlight the fact that the East Side has historically been the place in Milwaukee for emerging artists of all sorts, whether it be your traditional paint or film or theater or music,” Richards said.
Since the success of the first Tomato Romp!, tomato fights and festivals have become increasingly popular throughout the country, branching into cities like Reno, Nev., home of the annual hour-long tomato fight, and Minneapolis, which hosts the Midwest Tomato Fest.
“Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and this tomato fight and the way the East Side has staged it has been duplicated now in cities across America,” Richards said. “In fact there are companies that … (have) made a business out of it, and they stage tomato fights across the country.”
Owen calls Tomato Romp! a memorable part of her Marquette experience. “For me (during) freshman year, it was a wonderful way to propel myself outside of my comfort zone,” she said. “It’s different, it’s fun and it’s definitely something that (participants) will not forget.”
“It’s a whole lot of damn fun,” Richards said. “You haven’t lived life until you’ve gotten into a cage with 500 of your friends and have splattered and smushed tomatoes at each other.”