Bare-chested and grinning, nine-year-old Trevor giggles madly as he stands in the center of a large aluminum tub under a hot August sun. Around him, adults are filling the tub with buckets of warm water and dumping in loaf after loaf of rotting white sandwich bread. The stuff comes up past the knees of Trevor's swim trunks. As he mashes the bread into lumps with his feet, a pile of kids in swimsuits jumps in with him. It looks like some sort of twisted winemaking party. A chubby black kid in shorts and goggles sums it up best: "We're standing in throw-up!"
Franco Tijera, a stocky, tanned dude with tattoos and a ponytail, directs traffic through a bullhorn. "See the people wearing scrubs? Go to them if anything gets in your eyes." A little boy tugs on his shorts. Franco leans down, listens and addresses the crowd. "Anthony had food poured down his pants and he didn't like it. So don't do it...or don't do it to Anthony. Everybody ready?"
Like a TV commercial for ice cream, the kids scream back: "Yeeeeeeaaaahh!"
"Go! Go! Go!"
About 20 kids pick up the brown, mushy slop and start nailing each other with it. The air is filled with clumps of flying crap that splatters as it slaps against the kids' bodies. Their gleeful screams echo throughout the park: "Foooood fight!"
The fight is a kid's paradise: No nice clothes to worry about soiling, parents cheering -- not berating -- the attacks, and mountains of sickening crap to toss. "I made my ammo with mostly noodles and stuff," says Anthony. "I got it in a girl's hair. She's not gonna be able to get it out for a while," he says with a proud chuckle.
After the fight, the kids look like they've been swimming in regurgitated cookie dough. They clear it away from their faces, high-five each other, pose for pictures and saunter around like little badasses. Franco, again on the bullhorn, gets them back to their child labor. He has them clearing empty buckets and picking up anything hazardous to dump into trash bags. Then they prepare more putrid bread-and-water gumbo.
It's time for the adults to play.
The quiet Twin Lakes RV Park in Manvel, just off State Highway 6, is the site of Franco's 11th Food Fight. He started the event in 2003 as "just kind of an impromptu thing at Tio Pepe," with four people tossing food at each other at the restaurant. A little cleanup and a few apologies and explanations to the owners, and everything was cool.
Then one day, when Franco was out with his friend and mentor Jay Hamburger, a local man who delivers food to the homeless, a light bulb went off. "By the time Jay would get to all his spots, the food was spoiled," says Franco. "You're talking to homeless people, asking them how they're doing, and it takes time. Most of the loaves we had were unfit for human consumption."
Franco decided not to let the waste go to waste. He collected the moldy bread and turned it into ammunition for his Food Fight Lunch Mob (they have a MySpace page and everything). Though some other people make their own ammo with their own ingredients, he says he gets his stuff from "various food sources that provide wasted, expired food. It's stuff that would end up incinerated or in a city dump." He started throwing two or three food fights a year. "I always held them outdoors, and I'd make people bring canned goods for the homeless," he says. Now he charges $3 for admission, to cover costs. All participants have to bring items for the homeless -- toiletries, nonperishable food, clothing, anything. Franco puts care packages together and delivers them with Hamburger to homeless folks in the Sixth Ward.
Among today's crowd, Franco counts "professionals, attorneys, yuppies, soccer moms, hippies and stoners, pierced, tattooed, blacks, white, Latino, Chinese and even one Mexican national I picked up from Shepherd where the Mexicans hang out waiting for work." (The friendly guy chats in broken English as he grills some serious fajitas.)
In fact, most of the people here today are parents with kids. Trisha is here with her husband, Jason, and son, ZANE (yes, they spell it in all caps), as part of her birthday party. "Franco was like, 'Dude, you gotta come out, it's your birthday. What better way to celebrate?' My kid's having fun, and it's for a good cause," she says.
"Most of us have kids. We're in our twenties -- some people are in their forties -- and we just like coming out to the park, bringing our kids, barbecuing and having a good time," says Jason, a Food Fight veteran. "And all that food's going to waste, anyway. So it's a cool way to get rid of it."
Cool, yeah, but these adults get straight-up juvenile. "Last year I picked up a girl and dumped her headfirst in the tub," Jason recalls. "She came back and shoved a handful of the nastiest stuff I've ever tasted in my life in my mouth. I totally threw up all over the place. I still can't really talk about it without getting queasy."
A guy with a toy bazooka launches beer cans into the crowd as the adults prep for attack. Dustin, a youngish ponytailed dude, mixes the sickening concoction he prepped the night before in a cooler. "For ten bucks, I filled a cooler full of gross," he says. He rattles off his ingredients. "Water, oatmeal, stale Raisin Bran, pork 'n' beans, ramen, Cocoa Krispies, baked beans, noodles and a bunch of other crap. It made my roommate gag." He plans to use the "two-hand scoop and toss" on his opponents.
The child laborers have been cleared away, the nasty bread-and-water glop has been prepared, and the battlefield is ready. The adults split into two teams and clamor to the middle of the ring. "Back up! Back up!" yells Franco, who wants to see a charge straight out of Braveheart. The teams march until they're 30 yards apart. "You guys pretty much ready to go!?" he bellows.
The adults scream back much like their kids: "Yeeeeeaaah!"
The teams charge each other. In less than a minute, it looks like a giant has stooped over and puked 500 pizzas onto the campground. People are sliding in it. Dustin and his girlfriend, Tiffany, scoop chunks out of their muck and send it flying. Another group, cornered and outnumbered, picks up their cooler of black-eyed peas, rice, powdered sugar and noodles and dumps it on approaching attackers and each other. Franco is ruthless, dunking kids, splashing women and lifting combatants and trying to stuff slop in their pants. He then pulls off a perfect back flip into the center aluminum pan of filth.
When the battle's over, Franco orders an "execution." He sits on the tub and lines up five kids who draw a bead on him. At his command, they pelt him with what's left in the buckets and on the ground. The air smells like the foul side of a bread bakery. Folks, covered head to toe, look like they're made of brown splattered dough. Their hair is drying in the sun, forming clumpy dreadlocks. "To the lake!" yells Franco.
Everyone makes for the water, where they jump in and rinse away the goo. Soon the water begins to smell like yeast and the yellow end of a kiddie pool, but folks are too pumped to care. "I've never seen so many people here," says Jeva, Franco's son, floating in the water. "Dude, it was crazy," says Chris, who has stuffed two piles of ammo into his shirt to make boobs. A guy next to him vows to bring tons of "stoners from the north side" to the next fight. Indeed, for any adult who has ever secretly fantasized about tossing soup at a co-worker during lunch or turning Thanksgiving into a culinary melee, this is the place to be. Vanessa, a professional and mother who brought her kids here, can't wait for the next one. "My kids had a lot of fun, but my husband chickened out. Next year he's coming, and he's fighting -- with me."
Standing under a tree and surveying the after-battle, Franco is gushing, almost ranting. "Next year this could be huge," he says. "There could be hundreds of people here. It's perfect -- it's great for families, for kids. It gets people outdoors. And we'll help a lot of people, even the animals. The raccoons, the armadillos and birds -- they eat the stuff on the ground. And the fish eat the stuff in the water." In his mind, the Food Fight is a holistic, symbiotic entity.
His glorious dream is interrupted by flying cream pies. Franco is nailed by a food fight staple: the ol' whipped-cream-on-a-paper-plate. His girlfriend and her friends sprint by him, slapping the pies on his face, arms, chest and butt, and cackling and taunting him. He cleans off one eye and stares at them for a second. Then he lathers the cream into his body, rubbing it into his sweaty skin as if he's starring in a Dove commercial.
"Hey, man," he says, "no reason to let it go to waste."
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