In Indiana in 2006, sequestered jurors at a murder trial got so bored that to relive tension, they staged a food fight. In Ohio that same year, an irate shopper attacked a grocery store manager with a 10 pound bag of potatoes. At a New York City bar, in front of cheering onlookers, women vent their frustrations by wrestling with each other in plastic swimming pools filled with Jell-O.
The food fight in American culture is often associated with unruly students in school cafeterias, or with the memorable sequence in the film National Lampoon’s Animal House, in which members of a college fraternity throw edible projectiles at each other. While bored students with food to spare may indeed risk punishment by hurling objects they are otherwise expected to ingest, the phenomenon of food combat is not unknown among adults, as anyone who has witnessed an acrimonious debate at a service club or political luncheon can attest. American politician Hubert Humphrey, in fact, once advised public speakers to get to their points quickly and sit down before members of the audience “start throwing rolls at each other.” (Undoubtedly the rolls Humphrey had in mind are the soft yeast “Parker House” variety, as they make accurate, and yet relatively harmless, projectiles.)
The American sports of basketball, American style football, and especially baseball all involve throwing objects with both force and accuracy; most of the rest of the world’s peoples play soccer with their feet. Americans know, therefore, that a food projectile stands a good chance of hitting its mark and hence strengthening the physical or emotional point the food assailant wishes to make. While manners dictate that food be not thrown in polite company, ultimately waste of food is not an important American cultural taboo. In moments of revelry, jollity, or alcohol-fueled loss of inhibition a food attack is likely to be reciprocated, a limited exchange apt to proliferate into a general melee. Though the food fight is expected now and then at the family table, the high school cafeteria or even the military mess, no American gathering is totally immune from the specter of a food free for all. The fun is certain, the punishment speculative, or at least finite.
The American penchant for eating outdoors at picnics, cookouts, and barbecues promotes food fighting among all age groups as it obviates certain cleanup issues, especially when dealing with food that is biodegradable. While an indoor altercation may involve such relatively neat foods as dinner rolls or table grapes, food combat al fresco allows the skilled employment of an aerosol can of whipped cream, for example, a plate of mashed potatoes, a squirt bottle of ketchup, or that ideal missile, the versatile egg.
American children have a particular impetus to throw food; rather than punish their children for making a mess, American parents are likely to consult advice columns or even child psychologists in an attempt to understand why their children are “acting out.” The children have numerous models, from the pie-throwers who have populated American slapstick comedies for more than a century to the televised cartoon combatants who hurl food at each other with regularity. In theory, an American child who throws food may go hungry; in practice, many American children eat their fill and make sport with the remains. While hunger is indeed an issue in American society, it rarely impinges on American attitudes to food itself.
In a metaphorical sense, the term “food fight” refers to the ongoing battle between parents and children over the foods a child is willing to eat. In a different metaphorical sense, the term refers to public and political turmoil over food and nutrition issues, such as the campaign to improve school nutrition or the pressure to eradicate trans fats from the American diet. These extended uses of the term “food fight” would have little semantic force, however, if the practice of actual food combat were not so deeply engrained in the American imagination.