The World's 10 Messiest Food Festivals
by Brendan Spiegel
If your mother told you never to play with your food, she probably didn't grow up in any of these towns. Whether the food is being worshipped, chased, sculpted, or thrown, we've found 10 spots around the world where picking at your plate isn't just acceptable, it's encouraged.
1. Italy's Orange Battle
"¨Every year, townspeople in Ivrea, Italy, celebrate the three days before Lent by pelting one another with oranges. According to legend, the feudal lord of medieval Ivrea was so stingy that he gave his peasants only one pot of beans every six months. In protest, the villagers would throw the beans into the streets. Over the years, the beans were replaced by oranges, which grow plentifully throughout Southern Italy. The custom now known as the Orange Battle involves revelers standing on parade floats and launching the fruit at fellow participants. And it's not uncommon to see a little blood mixed in with all that orange juice. Visitors can join in, but you'll probably want to bring some goggles and a helmet.
2. "¨Cheese Rolling at Cooper's Hill
Each spring, a large wheel of cheese is rolled down a steep hill in England, and dozens of British men go tumbling after it. They risk sprained ankles, broken bones, and massive bruising. The big prize? The winner gets to keep the cheese.
While no one knows exactly how or why the first cheese race took place, local legend pegs the tradition on the ancient Romans. The event hasn't always been smooth rolling, though. It hit a rough patch during World War II, when rations made dairy difficult to come by. Instead of sprinting after a full hunk of Double Gloucester, contestants raced after a tiny slice placed inside a wooden wheel. A far greater threat to the competition came in 1997, when so many competitors were injured that authorities implemented some major changes. The following year, the cheese was allowed to roll down the hill, but no one could run after it. Thankfully, the toned-down version of the sport lasted just one year. In 1999, authorities introduced a few more safety measures and then let the cheese chasing resume. The games at Cooper's Hill have been going strong ever since.
3. "¨The Lopburi Monkey Festival
Like many places in Thailand, the city of Lopburi is overrun with macaque monkeys. They swing freely through the streets, hitch rides on top of cars, and snatch food from the hands of unsuspecting tourists. But even though the animals are annoying, the Thais worship them. According to Hindu legend, a god named Hanuman (the Monkey King) once ruled this region. In his honor, the city celebrates once a year by feeding its 2,000-plus monkeys a huge buffet overflowing with tropical fruits, flavored rice dishes, and modern treats such as Coca-Cola.
4. "¨Night of the Radishes
When Spanish explorers brought radishes to Mexico in the 16th century, farmers near the modern-day city of Oaxaca quickly started farming the veggies. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to buy them. Not knowing what to do with all the extra produce, venders began carving the radishes into ornate shapes and using the vegetable sculptures to lure customers to their produce stands. Amazingly, it worked. The novelty items became so popular that farmers began leaving their radishes in the ground long after harvest season, letting them grow into bizarrely shaped behemoths. Now, December 23 is known as Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes). Oaxacans celebrate it each year by gathering in the town square to display and admire elaborately detailed radishes modeled into saints, nativity scenes, and even the town itself.
5. "¨Turkey's Greasy Wrestling Competition
The Turkish sure do love their olive oil. In fact, they're so obsessed with the stuff that it plays a leading role in one of their treasured national pastimes—the Kirkpinar wrestling contest. At nearly 650 years old, the tournament is one of the world's longest continuously "¨running sporting events. It's also one of the most popular. Each June, more than 1,000 competitors cover themselves in a slick coat of olive oil before entering the ring. All that grease makes for some comically slippery bouts, but that doesn't stop the Turks from taking this event seriously. Millions of spectators turn out for the three-day tournament, and the champion (crowned the "Big Hero") is honored as the country's preeminent sports star.
6. "¨La Festival Gastronomico del Gato
In the small Peruvian farming town of La Quebrada, people have a strange way of honoring their ancestors; every September, they gorge themselves on cats. The locals host the epic feline feast to pay homage to the town's settlers—impoverished slaves who once survived on nothing but cat "¨meat. Despite outrage from animal-rights activists and feline lovers around the world, the festival only grows more popular each year. Recent feasts have even offered more creative options for foodies, such as cat Milanese and grilled cat with Peruvian black mint. Devotees say it tastes like (what else?) chicken.
7. The West Virginia Roadkill Cook-Off
Never let it be said that West Virginians can't poke fun at themselves. The annual Roadkill Cook-Off embraces the state's hillbilly image by celebrating a 1998 law that allows people to cook any meat found on the side of the highway. The festival's motto—"You kill it, we grill it!"—sums up the menu perfectly; it's a smorgasbord of scavenger's delights, including deer fajitas, BBQ buzzard, and squirrel gravy over biscuits.
8. Greece's Clean Monday Flour War
Many parts of the world go crazy during Carnival, but in the Greek seaside town of Galaxidi, it's all about the day-after festival, known as Clean Monday. That's when locals pummel each other with bags of multicolored flour, powdering the entire town like a doughnut. The food coloring in the flour is strong enough to stain old buildings, so before they unleash more than 3,000 lbs. of the stuff in the streets, the people of Galaxidi cover much of the city in plastic.
9. "¨The Mame-Maki Ritual
For centuries, the Japanese have marked the beginning of spring as a time to drive evil spirits out of their homes. The most common method for achieving this is the mame-maki ritual, during which families toss roasted soybeans around their houses and chant "bad luck out, good luck in!" At the end of the ritual, participants pick up and eat a bean for each year of their lives, assuring good fortune for the year ahead. Nowadays, children can be seen madly tossing beans onto the street, while celebrities and monks alike host parties in large temples and shower the crowds with soy.
10. "¨Shepherd's Shemozzle
Leave it to the Kiwis to out-weird us all. Hunterville, New Zealand, is home to the Shepherd's Shemozzle, a 2-mile race in which shepherds and their dogs trek through an obstacle course that offers a different eating challenge each year. Past trails have included sheep's eyes and oil-marinated bugs, but the 2008 contest may have been the strangest of them all. Contestants had to run 50 meters while clenching raw bull testicles in their teeth. Then, before the taste was out of their mouths, they had to eat a brick of dry Weetabix cereal, followed by a raw egg and a warm can of beer.