At the first-ever Midwest Tomatofest at Afton Alps, tomatoes were thrown as thousands of people enjoyed live music and mud fights.

Leslye Davis, Star Tribune

Tomatoes à la splat

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • August 1, 2011 - 9:42 AM

You have your regular old hot and sticky.

And then you have your getting-pummeled-with-soggy/smelly-tomatoes-in-the-middle-of-a-happily-deranged-and-giggling-throng-of-sweaty-people hot and sticky. With a side of mud.

The first-ever Midwest Tomatofest, a daylong celebration Sunday at the Afton Alps Recreation Area that included food and music and, oh yes, beer, culminated with 10 tons of the fruit-turned-ammunition being thrown, mushed and heaved in a sodden, crimson-soaked donnybrook.

About 2,000 tickets were sold in advance for the event, and another 400 showed up at the gate on Sunday, said Kamal Mohamed, one of several University of St. Thomas students or recent graduates who organized the event.

Mohamed, who will be a senior this year, said 20,000 pounds of tomatoes were shipped to the site from Kansas, overripe fruit that would be thrown away. Part of the event's proceeds are going to the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul. The idea was inspired by La Tomatina, a massive village-wide tomato fight dating back more than 50 years in Buñol, Spain.

At the bottom of the now-grassy ski slopes amid high bluffs near the St. Croix River, the laid-back crowd, blaring music, port-a-potties and mud from the previous night's downpour gave the event a Woodstock-in-miniature feel.

"We started the day off with bloody Marys, so I guess we're going back to the source," said Sarah Buell, who is from Denver and visiting friends Shannon Dudley and her husband, Jason LaLonde of Minneapolis. "This is definitely a cultural experience."

The trio had taken the high road on Saturday: a prim and leisurely bike trip that wound through Minneapolis, taking in sights like the Guthrie Theater and St. Anthony Falls. But this was a day for getting down and dirty.

"I saw an ad [for the Tomatofest] and I said, 'What do you think, does this look interesting?'" Dudley said. The next thing they knew, the group was at the Salvation Army, picking out the white clothes that organizers had recommended.

LaLonde opted for red-white-and-blue swimming trunks which, like the stuff worn by the others, would be a one-time use.

"These are definitely sacrificial clothes," Buell said.

Holly Markham of Melrose sported an old firefighter's helmet with a face shield. Her dad and grandfather were working security, and she was there with her boyfriend, Tad Nielsen, and his sister Abby Nielsen. So it was a family affair, she said.

"We're always ready to do crazy stuff any time," Tad Nielsen said.

He summed up the Darwinesque strategy for surviving the battle: "It's every man for himself!"

The tomatoes were strewn in a fenced-off area of the parking lot. For good measure, an ATV drove over them to make sure they were suitably mushy, spewing red juice from the tires.

On a signal, the battle began, tomatoes and bits of tomatoes flying every which way. People giggling in group hysteria. Amid the tomatoes' red glare, a flag on a pole emerged, followed by chants of "USA, USA, USA!"

Crysta Cadalbert and her cousin Gina Cadalbert emerged briefly from the fray to catch their breath and get their bearings, goggled and smeared from head to toe in tomato remnants.

"That was amazing! I made it rain tomatoes!" said Crysta Cadalbert, of Hudson, Wis., who was wishing for wipers on her goggles.

Gina Cadalbert, of Woodbury, was missing a flip-flop but, amazingly, was able to locate its mate, damaged in the chaos. It was well worth it, she said. "How many times do I get a chance to smash a tomato on my cousin's head while listening to music?" she said.

Crysta Cadalbert's parents, Michele and Mike Frost, watched appreciatively from the sidelines.

"I was thinking about joining in, but then I saw that pile of tomatoes," Mike Frost said. "Then I said, 'Hmm, you know what? I just might sit this one out.'"

Kylie Flaten of Apple Valley, and her friend Shelby Rieks, visiting from Des Moines, had an inspiration: With their goggles, they donned what appeared to be hazmat suits, offering protection from head to toe. What appeared to be outfits one would wear at a nuclear plant were actually lightweight painting coveralls.

"We got them at Menard's -- $10.99," Flaten said.

The outfits also offered a strategic advantage, Rieks said, for when the fruity ammunition ran low. "We stored some tomatoes inside."

Both women said it was an amazing experience, and had been looking forward to it for weeks, like children tearing into presents on Christmas morning after barely restrained anticipation.

Only messier.

"I'm going to have some bruises -- I got smacked right in the face," Flaten said.

"Yeah, some of those tomatoes were pretty solid," Rieks said. "And some people were chucking them like baseballs."

Undaunted, both women were quick to add they gave as well as they got. Both hope the event returns next year.

Mohamed said he and his fellow organizers, buoyed by the turnout and support of friends for their first Midwest Tomatofest, are already making plans for next year.

"We're going to do this again, even bigger and better," he said. "We're going to keep some things a surprise, like location and other things, but it was a lot of fun.

"We're excited to do this again."

Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999

© 2018 Star Tribune