RED, RIPE & JUICY
Florida Strawberry Festival
BY ASHTON GOGGANS
ILLUSTRATION BY DENNIS HEIL
For most of my life I haven’t been much of a festival or fair guy. I get sick on rides that spin me and shake me and throw me around. To quote a favorite writer, it seems to me like paying to be in a car crash. I love fried food, but in huge quantities, being consumed by huge crowds of future diabetics, it all gets quite depressing. At most fairs and festivals I’ve been to, whether local, county or state, I’ve come far too close to vomit, and been confronted with the harsh reality that all walks of life are capable of procreation and parenting. I become, briefly, agoraphobic.
But in recent years, I’ve come around, and that is largely to be attributed to the Florida Strawberry Festival. Let me explain.
The FSF has been an annual event in Plant City since 1930, held in honor of the state’s most delicious fruit’s high season. I love strawberries. Who doesn’t? And for 11 glorious days, more than 500,000 festival-goers revel in the glory that is strawberries, those precious little red orbs made sweet by the Florida sun.
There’s a flea market-type craft fair deal where you can peruse everything from jewelry to farming accessories, tons of strange confectionery, the most delicious strawberry lemonade I’ve ever tasted, an art gallery curated from local artists (comprised largely of strawberrythemed art), even a beauty pageant where the Strawberry Queen, as well as the Florida Strawberry Festival’s Royal and Junior Royal Court, is crowned (an event which was written about beautifully by Anne Hull in the New Yorker a few years back). Last year a Duchess on the Junior Royal Court’s was named—and I’m not kidding here—Daisy Duke. As in that’s her real name. They also name Plant City’s “Person of the Year” and hold a parade in his or her honor.
The festival also features hog races as well as other livestock competitions. You’ll see a lot of men dressed in their country best—bolo ties and pearl-buttoned shirts, Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. Women with very big hair. It is decidedly an Irony-Free Zone.
You can also see some pretty big-deal headliner musicians, most, if not all, of whom belong to the world of country music, about which I know next to nothing—though I know they get people very excited. I recognize the names, but couldn’t tell you what they sound like. This year, on top of acts like Gretchen Wilson, the JaneDear Girls, Air Supply, Demi Lovato, The Oak Ridge Boys, Vince Gill, Josh Turner, TobyMac, The Band Perry, the Charlie Daniels Band, Reba McEntire, etc. Mr. Hank Williams Jr. himself will be rocking the main stage. The concerts are spread out across the 11 nights, and range in price from free to $50.
One of the most entertaining of all the, well, entertainment is the birling competition. Birling, or logrolling, is a sport originally popularized by lumberjacks who rode their freshly cut timber down rivers to sawmills, and basically involves two lumberjacks (or lumberjills, if the contestants are women) standing on opposite sides of a floating log, trying to make the other one fall by spinning the log really, really quickly. Sound boring? It’s ridiculous fun, and for some salt-of-theearth types it is serious business.
There is also a staggering amount of strawberry shortcake. I’m talking tons. Like, literally thousands of pounds of the stuff. Mountains of angel food, buckets of whipped cream, barrels of fresh strawberries in sauce. I can’t begin to convey how delicious strawberry shortcake smells in such large quantities. It’s the stuff of fairytales.
The Strawberry Festival is, beneath it all, an homage to what is probably the most American of all fruits (Americans on average consume more than five pounds of strawberries each a year), a fruit we lucky Floridians can find locally grown, off-the-vine red, ripe, and juicy. (Strawberry farms make up roughly 14 percent of the state’s farmland; we provide more than 10 percent of the national strawberry supply.) When you get past the sugar and craziness, it’s a really lovely community event. It brings people from all over Florida together to celebrate the end of our winter—however mild it may be—with a sun-soaked party. And who doesn’t love a party?