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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s killer tomatoes and the history of food as protest projectile

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post)

The Roman emperor Vespasian might not be as well-known as his predecessors Nero and Caligula, but when he died in A.D. 79 he left behind a legacy that included stabilizing the empire, beginning construction of the structure that would become known as the Colosseum — and being the first politician recorded to have been pelted with flying produce.

During a visit to Africa, Vespasian was hit by rioters with turnips, according to the Roman historian Suetonius. Suetonius didn’t note precisely what had angered the people or how the emperor reacted, but one thing is clear: They were onto something, and some 2,000 years later, the tradition of hurling food in political protest endures. Throughout the centuries, politicians have been slugged with all manner of foods. Eggs. Pies. Tomatoes. Remember the trend of right-wing British officials getting “milkshaked” as the Brexit debate raged?

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Like Vespasian before him, Donald Trump is now adding to the story of politicians and the airborne food that haunts them. And in a manner that befits the former Republican president, he has taken the story into a surprising and hyperbolic direction: Trump, we learned on Wednesday, actually feared for his life at the other end of a major food group, or at least claimed to.

Death by fruit? “I think that they have to be aggressive in stopping that from happening,” Trump said, in a deposition whose transcript was reported this week, about the approach his security detail took in 2015 to threats that protesters at a 2015 campaign rally might launch a vegetal attack. “Because if that happens, you can be killed if that happens. … To stop somebody from throwing pineapples, tomatoes, bananas, stuff like that, yeah, it’s dangerous stuff.”

Trump’s worries might have been a bit misplaced, much as some of the other notions he famously espoused (that windmills will kill all the birds, maybe, or that Americans must flush their toilets at least 10 times to clear them). For starters, there are no prominent accounts of politicians being assassinated, or even maimed, by flying food. And why did he bring up pineapples? The bulky tropical treats would make terrible projectiles — and how many of them would one need to lug around, anyway, to ensure a successful attack? Bananas, too, are an unlikely missile.

On tomatoes, though, Trump does have a point. Just hours after the news of Trump’s fruit fears emerged, newly reelected French President Macron was pelted with a hail of cherry tomatoes when he appeared at an open-air market in a Parisian suburb. Macron, however, survived the onslaught, thanks in part to an umbrella someone nearby hoisted up to shield him.

Here’s a rundown of foods protesters that have aimed at politicians:

Tomatoes

Rotten produce, particularly tomatoes, has historically been associated with theatrical performances more than political ones. (The popular movie-reviewing site Rotten Tomatoes plays on the trope.) A bon mot that is often attributed to playwright Oscar Wilde — that when a rotten cabbage fell at his feet onstage, he apocryphally addressed its sender, quipping “every time I smell it, I shall be reminded of you” — was perhaps inspired by an actual event from 1895. The angry father of Wilde’s lover arrived at a performance of his hit play “The Importance of Being Ernest” with a bouquet of vegetables he meant to throw, although he was turned away by police.

And an actor in a New York Times story from a dozen years earlier was described as being “demoralized by tomatoes" during a lackluster performance. It’s unlikely, however, that tomatoes were thrown at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as is sometimes described, since tomatoes weren’t introduced in Europe until much later.

Plenty of politicians, too, have been targeted by tomatoes (which are technically a fruit, not a vegetable, something the lawyers in the Trump deposition actually discussed in a very enjoyable aside.) Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was spared from a splat during a book signing at the Mall of America when the man lobbing the fruit at her from a balcony in 2009 missed; in 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s motorcade in Egypt was hit.

And while Trump’s fear of lethal tomatoes (maybe he’s been watching too many B movies?) is overestimated, they can hurt — particularly if you’re whacked with a hard, unripe specimen. One of the rules of La Tomatina — the festival in Bunol, Spain, where participants sling tomatoes at one another in celebration — is that you smash the tomatoes before throwing them at another person, to lessen the impact (and maximize the squish?).

People threw eggs at drivers in the "People's Convoy" protest as they passed through Oakland, Calif. in mid-April. (Video: RISE Images)

Eggs

Egging is a long-standing tradition, carried on by middle-schoolers and political activists alike. As with tomatoes, the rotten variety has more impact (i.e. stench). Just this week, a trucker convoy protesting outside the home of a Democratic state lawmaker in Oakland, Calif., was met with a volley of eggs, many tossed by kids annoyed by the intrusion of the big rigs.

The origins of the practice go back centuries. In the 1871 novel “Middlemarch,” a man’s ill-fated run for Parliament includes a scene in which a mocking crowd pelts his image — and him — with eggs. Over the years, prominent U.S. politicians have taken shellings: Eggs were lobbed at then-vice-president Richard M. Nixon at several stops on his 1960 presidential campaign; Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was similarly greeted on the presidential trail in 1980. President Bill Clinton took an incoming oeuf in 2001 during a trip to Poland. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should probably win the title for most-agreeable target for his reaction to getting hit in the (considerable) shoulders during his 2003 campaign. He defended the egging as part of free speech, and joked that the perpetrator “owes me bacon now.”

Pies

A pie to the face is a quintessential comedic stunt, and it’s all the more primally satisfying when the object is a person of importance. The visual gag was popularized in vaudeville and in silent movies, and on-screen pieing became a cinematic staple, with practitioners such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges.

A photographic history of pieing

Many a political mug has been mashed into a pie, some the work of collectives such as the Bionic Baking Brigade and Pie Kill, which targeted the rich and powerful with pastry. The pie-to-the face roll call includes San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, New York Mayor Abraham Beame, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, and Watergate plumber G. Gordon Liddy.

A 2004 book by the Bionic Baking Brigade called “Pie Any Means Necessary” offered practical advice for aspiring piers (selecting the right variety, aim and the like) as well as history and ruminations on the deeper meanings behind the prank, which it deemed a “creative tool in the toolbox of resistance.”

“Pie-throwing utilizes carnival humor,” according to an essay in the book, “unsettling the authority and control that those in power try to project.”

After Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's Brexit Party, was doused in milkshake on May 20, he tweeted, saying, "[N]ormal campaigning is becoming impossible." (Video: Reuters)

Milkshakes

“Milkshaking” is a relatively more recent innovation. That could be because the milkshake itself has a shorter history than other commonly employed protest foods. It became a phenomenon employed against right-wing figures in the United Kingdom as Britain considered leaving the European Union. One protester tossed a banana-and-salted-caramel milkshake at Brexit leader Nigel Farage. Other targets included anti-Islam activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known as Tommy Robinson, and anti-feminist political commenter Carl Benjamin, who was hit by a creamy treat on at least four occasions.

A point against the practice is the cost, relative to, say, the moldy, leftover contents of one’s produce drawer. But it has the advantage of being visually appealing — the sight of a suit-wearing stiff coated in sticky, drippy dairy is quite photogenic. And as The Washington Post reported at the time, “attackers sipping shakes are far less conspicuous than bystanders clutching eggs.”

Spaghetti

The tossing of ribbons of pasta is more specific to a part of the world that’s very much in the news now. In Russia and Ukraine, the expressions “hang noodles over your ears” reportedly is akin to “pulling one’s leg” or deceiving them. In the midst of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, in which the country’s pro-Kremlin president was ousted, protesters threw piles of spaghetti at the Russian consulate in Odessa, essentially accusing the Russian media of inaccurate coverage.

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