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No place for diets in taste bud heaven

(ran S edition of Tampa Bay and State)

Jane Amerson went to the second annual Taste of Florida food festival Saturday prepared.

She had all her favorite choices marked down ahead of time. Cheesecake, spare ribs and Breyer's ice cream were just a few of the items on her list.

She also put a pack of antacids in her pocket.

Her husband, Charles, joked, "I brought a two-wheeled dolly with me so I can cart her to the car."

Judging from the hundreds of other people strolling around the University of Tampa's Plant Park with all kinds of food and drink in hand, the Amersons weren't the only ones whose taste buds were having a feast.

There was something for just about everyone.

For mainstream appetites, there was Little Caesar's pizza, Mel's Hot Dogs and the standard Taco Bell fare. For the more exotic-minded, there was crabmeat and shrimp gumbo from Cafe Creole, alligator black bean chili from Skipper's Smokehouse and raspberry white chocolate cheesecake from Carlino's Cafe.

Thomas and Kim Michaud of Brandon sampled chicken fajitas and chicken pitas.

But the rave at this year's festival appeared to be the fried green tomatoes, a Southern appetizer made popular by the recent movie of the same name. Many people were munching on the breaded treats.

For the kids, Mickey and Minnie Mouse were on hand to sign autographs and give out hugs, as were Brer Bear and other characters from the Disney movie Song of the South.

Smells of spicy ingredients and sizzling meat came from Tampa Tribune columnist Steve Otto's Chili Cook-Off tent, where about 50 contestants were mixing up batches of chili for judging later in the day.

The two-day contest was narrowed to 10 finalists Saturday. The competition will end today.

Charles Cloutier of Valrico said he entered his Chico's South of the Boarder Chili recipe in last year's contest, but didn't win. He was back this year to try again.

"I learned a lot last year about how to prepare, so I'm back this year with a little different routine," he said.

What makes a good chili?

"Garlic is very important," Cloutier said. "When you eat chili, it's not only the taste. It's the vegetables and everything you eat that make it complete."

Proceeds from the three-day event will benefit the city of Tampa's Friends of Recreation program and the University of Tampa's general scholarship fund.

The festival continues today from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.