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Roadside stands offer a mixed harvest

On our recent trip to Alabama, we were driving through Cottondale, Fla., on a little single-lane stretch of road taking us from interstate to interstate. In Cottondale, every house seems to have a produce stand in front. That makes driving hazardous because everybody pulls into the stands. We stopped to buy a few peaches. On our way home, we fell prey to the lure of more peaches in first blush _ maybe these would be better than the first batch, we hoped _ corn and pole beans right out of the fields, potatoes fresh out of the ground, and something we never can pass _ boiled peanuts. The reviews were mixed. The corn was sweet and tender; that is, the part the worms did not get. The little red new potatoes were fresh, with lots of flavor, definitely better than the supermarket offerings. The beans and boiled peanuts were fine. Forget the peaches for a while. All I can say for them is they smelled wonderful.

I don't know how many times we have done this and then had to rush to use them before they spoiled. We have rushed home to cook tomatoes, thrown away a bunch of overripe peaches and strawberries, and never gotten around to using that weird looking squash until it finally rotted and we threw it out, too.

I used to think that was half the reason for going to North Carolina _ those wonderful roadside stands with everything from chenille bedspreads and sun bonnets to honey and apples from the previous winter. Sometimes, the produce would come from Mexico and Washington state, but never mind, you got caught in the fervor of the moment.

You could read behind the grin on those faces, "Here come the flatland touristers again."

Maybe you think St. Petersburg does not have a diversity of ethnic backgrounds. But if you think that, you cannot be familiar with SPIFFS, St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society. This organization was formed in 1975 by St. Petersburg Evening Independent reporter Bethia Caffery.

"I had been out to visit my sister in California, and they had this fantastic renaissance fair. It impressed me so much, and when I came back, a friend named Tom Aaron asked me if anybody would be interested in an ethnic group like they have in his home town of Milwaukee."

Using her column in the Evening Independent, and her undying enthusiasm, Ms. Caffery called meetings and organized the first group, which immediately got together the annual fair, which is staged in March.

"If it hadn't been for the Evening Independent, SPIFFS would never have come to be," Ms. Caffery said. "You looked at that first folk fair and your heart rose up in your throat at the costumes they got together." She recalled the Ukrainian group doing squat dances with puttees over their shoes.

"They didn't even have boots. And look at the costumes they have now," she said. The Portuguese went through the phone book and called everybody with a Portuguese name," she recalled, "and now they have one of the biggest groups.

"Of course, the one in Milwaukee was founded to Americanize the immigrants to this culture. Ours is the opposite: It's to allow cultural groups to maintain their heritage," she said. "It's more a celebration of their culture. It is fun, and I think that's why it took off. There's now a new Cambodian group and a Turkish group. They keep reinventing themselves."

There are now 44 member groups in SPIFFS, and look what they have done for the city. Think what color they have added to our celebrations and what the fair has become. Takis Kapous (Hellenic) has just been elected SPIFFS president, a post he has held many times. Other officers and board members are African American, Armenian, Filipino, German, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Scottish, Spanish, Ukrainian.

For more information, call executive director Anna Trakas, 327-7999.

The Plaza Tower and Courtyard Shops (that's at 111 Second Ave. NE) will have the first of the Summer Happy Hour Series today. "Zoom" will entertain, AJ's Deli Cafe will have snacks available and there will be a cold beer, a wine cooler or a soda pop waiting for you. Time is 5 to 7 p.m., and there will be more of the same July 11 and Aug. 1.

Further Plaza news is that La Petite Marie restaurant is featuring entertainer Belinda Womack this month and July.