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Fall + Food + Florida = Festival Fun

Published: October 16, 2007

TAMPA Joan Steinbacher knew three things: She loved to eat, she loved being outdoors during the mild Florida winters, and she loved going to music and arts festivals.

"It seemed to me like food festivals combined all that," she says.

The problem was, most times she didn't hear about them until they were over.

"So, I thought, 'Let me see if I can look around and find a list of them somewhere.'" she says.

Only there wasn't a comprehensive resource. There were a few Web sites, but they usually focused on the bigger gatherings and celebrations.

"The smaller festivals like the Kumquat Festival in Dade City sometimes give you a better sense of the community," she says. "Everyone in that town comes out for it."

So Steinbacher, who lives in Seminole and works in information technology, compiled all the Sunshine State had to offer into the book "Food Fest! Your Complete Guide to Florida's Food Festivals" (Bee Cliff Press, $14.95) and the accompanying Web site, FoodFestGuide.com.

The book lists dozens of food festivals, from A Taste of St. Augustine to Zoofari in Tampa.

"Fall is one of the best times to get out," she says. "People, in general, love food and people in Florida love to be outside. It's a great way to combine the two into one."

The variety of festivals she discovered surprised her, she says. Blowouts such as the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City and the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival in Lake Buena Vista are well-known, but the comparatively smaller events such as the Plant City Pig Jam, the Kumquat Festival in Dade City and Flan Fest in Tampa have their own charms to offer.

There are peanut festivals near Gainesville and in the Panhandle town of Jay. Bradenton has its pumpkin festival. LaBelle celebrates the wonder that is the swamp cabbage, which is not really a cabbage; it's the heart of a sable palmetto. Land O' Lakes in Pasco County is home to the three-day annual flapjack festival the first weekend of November. Flapjacks are free on that Saturday morning.

The Windsor Volunteer Fire Station outside of Gainesville hosts the Windsor Zucchini Festival, complete with zucchini ice cream and a zucchini carving contest. If you can't make it this year, just rent the 1991 Michael J. Fox movie "Doc Hollywood." Filmed outside Gainesville, it celebrates the fictional town of Grady's yellow squash festival.

"That's the fun thing about these festivals," Steinbacher says. "They have these off-the-wall competitions that are one-of-a-kind."

Her favorite? Seafood festivals. October is prime time for those, especially since it marks the start of stone crab season.

"People don't really cook it [seafood] a lot at home because they're afraid to, so it allows people to try a lot of different seafood at once," she says

Her biggest surprise as she was putting the book together?

"I was amazed at how many chili festivals and how many barbecue festivals there were," she says. "You wouldn't think with it being so hot that people would get into that, but there are a ton of festivals."

Reporter Jeff Houck can be reached at (813) 259-7324 and jhouck@tampatrib.com.

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