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Strawberry hamburger, funnel bacon on a stick among Florida Strawberry Festival food

With a cookie-crusted strawberry hamburger on the menu, the venerable Florida Strawberry Festival opening today in Plant City can rival any of the food curiosities found at the biggest state fairs.

Though the strawberry shortcake assembly line is the most famous food attraction and the berry-studded milk shakes had Food Network chefs swooning, the evil geniuses behind the deep fryers on concessionaire row have some tricks up their greasy sleeves — like funnel cake-coated bacon and chicken coated in Frosted Flakes cereal.

But the strawberry is the star here, and the red-hot love of strawberries that brings strawberry pizza, strawberry pie and strawberry wine can also turn sinful. Like the strawberry burger.

It was designed by Cheryl Reas of Carousel Foods who, with her husband, Dennis, found food infamy in 2007 with the Florida State Fair's doughnut burger — still a bestseller.

The strawberry burger is your basic grilled beef patty — except Reas grinds up Parkesdale Farm Market's strawberry cookies to make a coating and then fries it again to give it a crust. Then it's topped with bacon, provolone cheese and sliced strawberries and drizzled with a strawberry glaze.

But Reas still wasn't done. Less than 24 hours before the festival officially opened, she switched out the bun for strawberry French toast — Texas toast that's dipped in French toast batter mixed with pureed strawberries.

"You know how the doughnut burger is sweet and salty? It's that type, but with that little fruit in it," she said of her culinary brainchild.

Her first version was a beef patty dipped in strawberry batter and deep-fried. That was good, she said, but she really liked the crusted Parmesan burger she created a month ago for this year's Florida State Fair.

She knows she has to think of more ways to shock fair food fans.

"They expect it," Reas said. "It's getting harder, but now our brains are always working and we are coming up with all kinds of ideas. We are thinking five burgers ahead."

But she's not the only mad scientist at the grill. Other foods at the Florida Strawberry Festival this year include:

Funnel bacon on a stick, with a strip of bacon that is deep-fried in funnel cake batter and drizzled in caramel, from Best Around Concessions.

Netterfield's chicken on a stick combines two boneless chicken breasts deep-fried in Frosted Flakes batter, from Net­terfield's Concessions.

• Strawberry fries and strawberry Saratoga potato chips also play into the sweet-and-salty combo, giving fried favorites a hint of strawberry.

Returning favorites include roasted corn, giant turkey legs, Amish doughnuts, massive pretzels, a variety of corn dogs and thick slices of bacon with chocolate dipping sauce.

• Plan to pick up a very cheap flat of the very best strawberries (farmers save their best for the festival). There are stands in the main exhibit hall, at gates 1 and 16, and at roadsides.

• There will be three stands selling strawberry shortcake, including one that lets you build your own.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com.

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