For cultural fest in Ybor City, thank the dessert

Ybor City Saturday Market manager Lynn Schultz approached Hillsborough County Hispanic liaison Tony Morejon seven years ago about attracting more Hispanics to the upstart offering of fresh produce, gourmet foods and merchandise.

Back in 2003, the market largely drew young professionals who lived in and around the district, but the crowd lacked the Latino influence that reflected the historic district's heritage.

Essentially, Morejon told Schultz the best way to the heart of the Hispanic community is through the stomach.

"I said, 'How about a flan fest?' " Morejon said.

"I got this puzzled look like, 'What in the world is this man talking about?' " Schultz said.

Forgive Schultz, but as a St. Louis native she had never heard of the delicious caramel custard dessert.

"In St. Louis, we would have had a gooey butter cake festival," she said, laughing.

Her lack of knowledge about flan didn't dent her enthusiasm about showcasing the dessert. In two quick weeks, she put together the first Flan Fest.

Fans of the sweet treat turned out in droves, contestants brought out their best creations, judges ate whole flans — instead of samples — and lived to tell about it.

Barely.

And everybody had fun.

Now the seventh annual Flan Fest takes place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Park, with major sponsors, live entertainment, kids activities and eager contestants hoping to create a flantastic concoction.

"It's not just a taste contest, but a presentation contest," said Schultz, who had to cut off the entries at 30. "They take so much time preparing the flan. One lady is on her seventh practice just to make sure she's getting it right."

How did this delicacy stir up so much excitement? Flan's power comes from its ability to resonate with the entire community.

"Flan is something shared in all the different cultures," Morejon said. "Cubans make flan, Mexicans make flan, Puerto Ricans make flan, Colombians, Venezuelans, you name it.

"Even people from the Philippines make flan because of the Spanish influence there. It's really turned out to be an awesome thing."

Asked which culture makes the best flan, Morejon declined to answer because the rivalry is too intense. Every culture has different ideas and each insists the best comes from its native land.

Even Schultz is hooked. The woman who once couldn't even pronounce flan is now something of an authority. She makes her own version to promote the fest, and Morejon says it may be the area's best.

"She's been the powerhouse behind the festival," Morejon said of Schultz. "She's the motor."

Over the years, the competition morphed into two categories: traditional and nontraditional. Nontraditional includes practically every type of flan imaginable: coconut, chocolate, pineapple, mango, Kahlua, strawberry. Schultz said one contestant this year is boasting of a mojito flan.

Most important, the festival succeeded in making the Hispanic community more aware of the Saturday Market. The weekly gathering now reflects the diversity of the community, drawing people from a 50-mile radius and averaging 70 vendors.

I guess flan is best served with a big dollop of community unity.

That's all I'm saying.

For cultural fest in Ybor City, thank the dessert 02/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 22, 2010 11:12pm]

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