ST. PETERSBURG — They came, they were seen and they noshed duck, shrimp and pork belly Saturday at the 18th Taste of the NFL, the annual foodie wing-ding that raises money for hunger relief.
"They" were the roughly 2,500 people who shelled out $500 each to sample tasty food and wine, plus get their photos snapped with TV celebrities, star chefs and NFL players, both current and retired. VIP tickets, which allowed an hour more of tasting, were $600.
Each NFL city sent a chef to show off its hometown fare and paired them with a football player to sign autographs. Chef Marty Blitz from Tampa's Mise en Place served up sauteed calamari in yuzu soy glaze in his 16th Taste of the NFL appearance. Retired linebacker Scot Brantley represented the Buccaneers. Over the years, the event, always held on the eve of the Super Bowl, has raised about $8 million for hunger relief organizations.
Among the celebs roaming the artificial grass at Tropicana Field were the Today Show's Meredith Viera, Ann Curry and Jenna Wolfe, Top Chef host Tom Colicchio and some contestants from his Bravo reality show, the new Miss America, Katie Stam, crown and all, plus lots of football players.
Former Dallas Cowboys great Roger Staubach hobnobbed with Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver while onlookers held their cell-phone cameras aloft to capture the moment. Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen's drummer, whose own band the Max Weinberg 7 was the night's entertainment, perused the auction items, mostly unrecognized. He paused longest at the rock memorabilia.
Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and his son, Jake, chatted up folks — and Rays employees. The party was, after all, in his house.
"Let's get this football game out of the way and we can get to what's important — baseball," he said, smiling. "Seriously, though, this is a great event."
Carolina Panthers cornerback Richard Marshall was happy to be sitting and using a Sharpie on footballs, programs and souvenir aprons, while chef Blake Hartwick and crew dished out barbecue duck spring rolls with chow-chow. "Last night was something," he said. He rolled into bed about 8:30 a.m. Saturday after a jamming Friday night in Tampa. "I need a rest."
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.