Sunday, March 6, 2011

Florida Strawberry Festival a Must

Tampa Bay has little claim to fame. Yes, I love the community and I love living here but you don’t see us featured too often in the national media for anything. When I open issues of the cooking or travel magazines that I subscribe to, I long to see some local flavor but it’s just not there. One annual event, though, leads the nation into spring and shows off a vibrant agricultural gem that dots the landscape just east of greater Tampa Bay. The Florida Strawberry Festival is in Plant City; a little community not nearly prepared for the heavy traffic it receives for 2 weeks every March. I’ve been going on and off to this fair since I was a little boy but it wasn’t until I began travelling extensively that I realized what a unique prize we had here.

In the US, Strawberries are available year round. California provides most of the nation’s berries but Florida is second and produces 100% of the strawberries consumed in the South during the winter months. The biggest impact on Strawberry production is the weather. They like rain and sunshine in a harmonious balance and don’t care much for freezing temperatures. Every year our local news runs stories of how the growers are dealing with days that fall below freezing by coating the berries with ice from sprinklers mounted in the fields. This prevents the berry from falling below 32 degrees no matter how cold the outside air becomes. Complaints from growers about stunted crops don’t seem to have too much of an impact on the availability of brilliant, plump and sweet fruit when the March festival arrives.

I must admit, I’m generally not much of a “fair” person. People that know me will tell you, I like my concrete. Therefore, the whole agriculture scene is beyond me. Contests where cows and pigs are judged do not hold my interest. Unless you tell me bacon tastes better from a prize hog, I could care less. I’ve also always assumed that “fair” beauty queens were judged on numerous criteria including, but not limited to, a tooth count. Prejudices aside and as long as I stay at least a hundred yards from tents that house the yet-to-be-dead livestock, I think the Strawberry Festival in Plant City is an amazing way to spend a day.

This fair is huge. I’m sure there are bigger but the midway isn’t just a strip in the center on the event. It wraps completely around the fairgrounds with more rides than Disney World. All involve a central theme of spinning in one direction or another and faster than humans should spin. I would imagine we could make a dent in the federal budget by simply sending pilots and astronauts to the fair for a few rides rather than building expensive centrifuges. Dotted along these nauseating, child-loving paths is the real reason I love the Strawberry Festival: the food. Booths and trailers fill the air with aromas that are as compelling to me as sirens to a sailor. Year after year, the boundaries of what can be fried or grilled are pushed anew. My only regret is that the portions, while not huge, are too big to try as many things as I’d like. Fried Wisconsin Cheddar nuggets, hand coated Chicken-on-a-stick, chocolate dipped bacon and, of course, the strawberry shortcake is all I could make room for in the 6 hours we were there. I really wanted to try the battered and deep fried Twinkie but I couldn’t bring myself to spend the money on something I knew I could only take one bite of because my stomach was already full. While there are plenty of grilled options that are slightly more calorie-friendly, to the best of my knowledge you won’t find a healthy-tree-hugging-organic-renewable option. This is a salad-free zone and, for one, I am glad.

The quintessential Strawberry Festival experience must end with the famous Strawberry Shortcake. While the line wraps around the outside of the exhibit hall, it moves quickly. We make our way to the back where the gentleman holding the sign that says “back of the line” tells us that, while long, we’ll be building our own strawberry shortcakes in about 10 minutes. Experiencing serious Déjà vu, this line and method of building your own dessert is exactly the same as it was when my parents first brought me to the Strawberry Festival as a little boy (with one exception –it was free then. Now it’s $3.50).

Not completely understanding the efficiency of this concept, we purchase our ticket for the shortcake then take 3 steps where we deposit out ticket for the shortcake. Seems like a step could be omitted but either way we were at the front. I ladle fresh cut strawberries and their accompanying sweet juice onto the cake and dollop on the fresh whipped cream (a constant stream of fresh whipped cream pours from the kitchen where 4 industrial mixers work non-stop to keep up with the demand).

At the end of the line, one of the country-clad strawberry maidens tops my creation with a final fresh berry.

Another thing you may or may not know about me is that I’m generally not a dessert person but I’d wait in a much longer line for a much longer time to enjoy this treat. The entire day, the entire distance from my home, the entire sunburn on my skin covered head was worth this moment. The strawberries, even in their own sweet juices, are so fresh that they still have a perfect texture. The Pound Cake soaks up the flavor like an exquisite sponge while the whipped cream is just sublime.

My kids had a spectacular day as did I, but for very different reasons. While they rode and spun, got nauseous and recovered, smiled and shot toward the sky –I stood next to the ride nibbling on many of the delicious offerings. Someday, I hope to go back with my kid’s kids and watch them smile as did mine. That, and the food, make a day like this precious.

1 comment:

Neva Modzelewski said...

It looks like you really had a great experience attending this strawberry festival celebration. In events like this, most probably, people will expect the same: STRAWBERRIES EVERYWHERE. So if ever you’re part of a food festival like this, you have to think of how your food would definitely standout among the rest. Well, it’s not about being the best, but at the end of the day, it’s about how you’ve been able to satisfy the people who joined the celebration. Like in your case, I’m sure that the people there did their best to make you happy, right? :’)