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Opening day at Plant City’s Florida Strawberry Festival: shortcakes, fried food and more

After weathering a pandemic, the state’s most-attended festival is ready for what it expects to be a more normal year.
 
Published March 2, 2023|Updated March 3, 2023

PLANT CITY — They were long on shortcakes and small-town charm at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday, which opened for its 88th year in the northeast Hillsborough County town of Plant City, nicknamed the “winter strawberry capital of the world.”

The Southern charmer remains a staple of the old-fashioned festival, reigning supreme as the most-attended fair in the state. It is still cash only at many stations. But modern flairs are cropping up, from the Brandon Farms milkshake stand taking Venmo for their creamy treats, to food stands that sell vegan entrees, acai bowls, soba noodles and Mexican street corn along with the abundant purveyors of corn dogs, pizza on a stick and chicken on a stick.

“This has been our place to come ever since childhood,” said Brenda King, 57, of Plant City, who competed in a toss game Thursday with her sister Linda Sansom, 61, to win a live goldfish.

With no booze, tobacco or other vices, the festival works hard to keep its image as a quaint piece of Americana. This year’s festival runs daily through March 12, with a midway and a music lineup that includes legends like Willie Nelson and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

After weathering a pandemic, crowds started to return last year, organizers said, and they are ready for what they expect to be a more normal year for attendance.

“We are better than back to normal,” said food vendor “Spaghetti Eddie” Porcelli, whose pizza on a stick was a TikTok sensation last year. He still has it on the menu, as well as a pickle pizza that he created with garlic parmesan ranch sauce and loads of dill pickles. It’s a big seller, he said, likening it to a Cuban sandwich in flavor profile.

A slice of pickle pizza from Eddie Spaghetti's, a vendor at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City.
A slice of pickle pizza from Eddie Spaghetti's, a vendor at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Over at The Best Around Food concession, legendary vendor “Mama Jane” Harris strives to top herself every year. Her cunning genius is behind a variety of memorable sweet and savory funnel cakes, from the Cuban sandwich funnel cake at this year’s Florida State Fair to flavors like red velvet, bacon maple, cotton candy and pizza funnel cakes. For the Florida Strawberry Festival she came up with a savory fried elephant ear based on Hungarian street food.

The Langos Ear combines a traditional elephant ear batter that is brushed with garlic butter. The center is piled with a cream cheese and sour cream blend that is sprinkled with bacon and chives.

“I try to outdo myself,” said Harris, who is now in her 40th year with Best Around, now as its manager.

A closer look at a Langos Ear, which is fried elephant ear batter that is brushed with garlic butter. The center is piled with a cream cheese and sour cream blend that is sprinkled with bacon and chives at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City.
A closer look at a Langos Ear, which is fried elephant ear batter that is brushed with garlic butter. The center is piled with a cream cheese and sour cream blend that is sprinkled with bacon and chives at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

But strawberries remain the real stars, and local farmers were selling flats of jewel-like berries on opening day. A midday eating contest in the entertainment tent featured teams of four competing to be the first to finish deep-fried strawberry shortcakes on a stick. The winning closer, Charlie Frankel, 31, of Orlando, had to wolf down two of them fast, using his hands to shove mounds of whipped cream in his mouth before standing in victory with his dessert cup over his head.

“Oh, I feel good,” said Frankel as he huffed and puffed soon after his team took the strawberry trophy. “That’s not a food you caress. It’s a food you shove down your mouth.”

If you go

Florida Strawberry Festival: Since 1930, the Plant City festival has celebrated the strawberry harvest with a midway, animal shows and a lineup of top country, pop and rock artists. It runs March 2-12 from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily at 303 BerryFest Place, Plant City. 813-752-9194.

Admission: $10 for adults, $5 for ages 6-12, 5 and younger are free. Parking is $5, cash only. You can save $2 on admission by buying tickets in advance at Publix. Concert tickets are $20-$60 in addition to gate admission. There are numerous days with special discounts on admission or the $20-$30 ride armbands. Find them at flstrawberryfestival.com.

Contestants participate in the deep-fried strawberry shortcake on a stick eating competition at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday in Plant City.
Contestants participate in the deep-fried strawberry shortcake on a stick eating competition at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday in Plant City. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
People wait in line for strawberry shortcake at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday in Plant City.
People wait in line for strawberry shortcake at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday in Plant City. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
"Mama Jane' Harris, manager of The Best Around food concessions, prepares a Langos elephant ear at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday in Plant City.
"Mama Jane' Harris, manager of The Best Around food concessions, prepares a Langos elephant ear at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday in Plant City. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times (2023) ]
Vinny Boccabella, 54, left, and Christine Boccabella, 55, of Orlando, take a photo with a display stand at Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday in Plant City.
Vinny Boccabella, 54, left, and Christine Boccabella, 55, of Orlando, take a photo with a display stand at Florida Strawberry Festival on Thursday in Plant City. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]