A History of Protest Foods, from Eggs and Tomatoes to Cream Pies

Like everyone around the world, we’ve been somewhat obsessed with what’s going on in Ukraine—and in particular, this series of photos of Ukrainians throwing spaghetti on the Russian consulate in Odessa. They appeared recently on blogger Ilya Varlamov‘s website and Facebook page—and prompted some big questions. Like: What’s going on here?

Apparently, this was a protest against the Russian media’s spotty and controversial coverage of the turmoil, according to journalist Alexander Kleimenov, who informed us that, in both Ukrainian and Russian, the expression “to hang noodles over someone’s ears” means “to pull someone’s leg.” In other words, the protesters were claiming Russian media can’t really be serious about what they’re reporting.

And this past weekend, food again became a factor in the Ukrainian crisis. During the referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia, some Ukrainians chose to abstain from voting by staying home and cooking varenyky, a traditional Ukrainian dumpling.

Which got us wondering: Why do people so often protest with food?

“My guess is that people throw food because it is cheap, visible, and easily accessible,” says Andrew Gelman, a political science professor at Columbia University. “Tomatoes are inexpensive, easy to throw, and make a satisfying splat. Eggs are easy to throw and leave a big mess. Food throwing is also basically nonviolent. You throw rocks and the police might shoot back at you. But the cops would look pretty foolish shooting you for throwing food. So I’m thinking practicality rather than symbolic value here.”

Food as protest tool has a long history, of course. Perhaps the first recorded food protest took place in 63 A.D., when Vespasian—then the governor of Africa, later emperor—was pelted with turnips by the people of Hadrumetum, who may have been angry about food shortages.

After that, the items lobbed got a little less painful—and a whole lot messier. Eggs seem like a no-brainer protest tool: They’re easy to find, and easier to detonate. But although folklore has it that prisoners in the Middle Ages were put in stocks and pelted with eggs, the first written documentation of eggs used in a protest may have been much later: 18th-century texts recorded an act of egg-throwing to persecute Methodists on the Isle of Man, and in 1834 abolitionist George Whittier was pelted with eggs after an anti-slavery lecture in Concord, New Hampshire.

Today eggs remain one of the most reached-for weapons of choice for political protestors. On the campaign trail for governor of California, in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger was hit with an egg. (He brushed it off like a boss.) And in 2004, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was pelted so hard with an egg launched by an opposition activist that he was taken to the hospital. In 2011, Afghan demonstrators threw eggs at the Iranian consulate to protest a blockade of fuel tanks that caused prices to skyrocket, and last year a group of protestors in London vowed to cover former prime minister Margaret Thatcher‘s casket in eggs—but security at the funeral procession was too tight for them to succeed. One of the biggest modern egg protests occurred in August 2013, when French farmers took to the streets, breaking 100,000 oeufs a day to protest low prices set in place by the European Union.

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A History of Protest Foods, from Eggs and Tomatoes to Cream Pies