One big, fat, messy tradition occurs
on the last Wednesday of every August when thousands of people gather in the
little medieval town of Buñol in Spain for the biggest tomato war on earth. La
Tomatina it’s called, and this year they threw six truckloads — maybe 100
tons — of juicy, red ripe tomatoes at each other. The town also hauled in
500 showers so everybody could clean up afterwards.
Lillooet cannot lay claim to such an
outrageous tomato fest, but they do grow some pretty hot tomatoes there, and
though town walls aren’t splattered with drippy red splotches this time of
year, we’re still in the thick of the season, so to speak.
“Lillooet has a huge history of
tomato growing. We used to have a big, big cannery that hired hundreds of
people from all around. All the plateaus, including some of the reservations
and so on, used to grow tomatoes,” says Leslie Malm, who helps her parents run
Old Airport Garden in Lillooet.
“They would take the kids out of
school in early September to pick tomatoes because they had so many and not
enough labour to deal with them.”
Now the kids stay in school in early
September. The cannery, which was started by Japanese families making a living
in the area after the World War II internment camps closed, burnt down in the
early 1960s. Local gossip had it that it was arson to force the canning
production south to the States.
As for the plateaus lining the valley
that once were festooned with tomato plants, it’s now pretty much come down to
people growing them in their big backyards and at Old Airport Garden —
the only commercial tomato-growing venture left.
But that doesn’t undermine the
quality of the tomatoes. They’re still superb, due to the wonderful sunny
climate (fewer than 80 days of precipitation annually) and the steadfast soil.
“We grow the best tomatoes in B.C.,”
says Sumi Tanaka, who, along with her husband, Bill, have about 100 plants
growing in their backyard. Leslie and her family grow good ones, too, she
concedes good-naturedly, but the Tanakas just give theirs away.
Meanwhile, down at Old Airport Garden
where they have four acres of tomato plants, people are driving in from 100
Mile House, from Vancouver, from Kamloops to get some red-hot tomatoes. Some
pick them themselves, maybe 1,500 pounds. Another family, Italian, went for
3,000 pounds. That’s right — 3,000 pounds. I don’t have too many zeroes