Justin Kline | Sports/Associate Editor
Is a strawberry shortcake from anywhere on the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds really that much better than one you’ll get outside of Plant City?
Let me tell you a story. My first Florida Strawberry Festival experience as an Observer staffer was back in 2014 and I had always heard about how good the shortcakes (or biscuits, if that’s your thing) were, but never had it for myself. So, my editor at the time decided putting me in the strawberry shortcake eating contest was the best way to get me initiated. Eating four pounds of the stuff at once would make up for all that lost time, right?
Here’s where the festival messed up, at least for a guy like me: that shortcake was delicious. I’m not a disciplined enough eater to power through something that tastes that good. I have to savor it, even if my version of savoring every bite of something still looks a little bit faster than many of yours. And when you’re slowly eating something that rich and sugary with that much whipped cream on top, your stomach’s gonna have some fighting words for you and you’re not gonna be too distracted to notice.
Some guy actually finished his entire plate and legitimately won the contest. I might have gotten through a pound and a half of the strawberry shortcake before I had to tap out. I then went an entire year without eating strawberry shortcake — not totally because I swore myself off of it after having eaten enough for one year, but also because my heart and my stomach gave me completely different signals every time I even looked at one.
And you know what? When the 2015 festival rolled around, I jumped right back in. No regrets.
I’m not the same person I was back then. I’ve drastically cut sugar from my diet as part of my own healthier eating initiative and most dairy products hit my stomach much differently now, for the worse. But when I go to the festival, I still make sure I get a strawberry shortcake from anywhere because the taste of those Plant City strawberries is undefeated. Whatever happens to me later that day totally worth it.
If you see a strawberry shortcake booth, you’re not gonna go wrong.
Oh, and one more thing: shout out to Peachey’s and Pickle Barrel Sirloin Tips for making the other two of my top three favorite things to eat at the festival. Seriously, go buy their stuff. You don’t even need to thank me.
Breanne Williams | Staff Writer
I’ll be the first to admit that traditional “fair food” isn’t really my cup of tea. It’s heavy, it’s often greasy and after you’ve spent more than a week walking around watching people inhale buckets of fries and stain their lips with bright cotton candy the allure of the special treats tends to diminish.
Luckily, one of the many aspects that sets the Strawberry Festival apart is its draw for culinary enthusiasts. Vendors always step up their game and the food at nearly every booth tends to be mouthwatering and creative enough to make even the healthiest eater seriously consider splurging.
If you’re there for more than one day, there’s more wiggle room to try everything your heart desires. However, if you’re trying to check off your cheat list in one go, tag-team with a friend and you can accomplish so much more.
Speaking as someone who frequently is at the festival from opening to close, finding the perfect breakfast is one of the most complex culinary decisions of the day. There’s always the dessert for breakfast option: strawberry shortcakes, strawberry crepes, strawberry funnel cake. But I frequently find myself weaving my way over to the Plant City High School Music Foundation’s booth in the Stadium Exhibit Hall for a bowl of fresh berries. They’re sweet — sugar-free options are also available — and refreshing, and allow you to really enjoy the genuine strawberry flavor without also adding the innumerable calories that come along with “all the fixins’” that you’ll find in so many of the other desserts.
Johnson Barbeque, found east of the Stadium Exhibit Hall near the grandstands, is one of the few booths I visit time and again as I spend 11 days covering different events at the festival. While one could wax poetic about the strawberry brisket tacos for hours, there’s another element available that locals adore and many visitors often overlook. Johnson’s has a refillable tumbler.
This is Florida. Even when it’s chilly, the sun is blazing high in the sky and you’re going to quickly have your day of fun turn sour if you don’t stay hydrated. Water is a must, but let’s be honest. Most of us enjoy treating ourselves to something else while we’re on a mini-vacation at the festival. If you grab a Johnson’s tumbler, you can drink homemade sweet tea all day long. It’s one of the first stops locals make every year and the sheer number of those cups that you’ll see throughout the day if you pay attention will clue you in on the true magnitude of the deal.
Nestled in the corner of the Strawberry Festival near neighborhood village is a small booth that one could argue changes lives. Smitty’s Hand-Dipped Buttermilk Corn Dogs has a cult following. It’s a simple recipe, but for some reason these corn dogs stand well above the rest. The line speaks for itself and it frequently will be seen wrapping all the way toward Kiddieland. It’s not uncommon to see true corndog enthusiasts pop over for a freshly dipped dog for breakfast. If you haven’t tried them, trust me. Get a napkin, grab your corn dog, do a simple squiggly line of mustard and enjoy.
No festival experience would be complete without trying something, well, untraditional.
When it comes to food, I’ll try just about anything once. And the festival is the perfect place to flex your adventurous muscle. If I’m with a friend who is itching to order something “for the ‘gram,” I automatically take them to one of two places: Carousel Hamburgers or Peachey’s Baking Co.
Carousel, on the far northeast corner of the festival, creates massive “hamburgers” unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Labeled the Strawberry Sandwich, the meal is a hamburger patty, strawberry mayonnaise, strawberry relish and all the other trimmings and is sandwiched between two large and very sweet strawberry donuts.
I can eat maybe four or five bites before I’ve had my fill, so definitely split it with a friend.
At Peachey’s, there is no end to your Instagram photo ops. The Sweetheart is a tradition at the Strawberry Festival. It’s the massive Amish donut, hot fudge, whipped cream and locally sourced strawberries. This year they’re shaking things up by adding a S’mores creation as well. Ignore the long line, it always moves very fast and believe me the food is worth the wait.
My true moment of near insanity last year, however, came purely by chance. A few friends and I were taking a break from covering events at the festival and decided to try the chocolate dipped bacon at Mavric’s Chocolate Barn at the southern end of the Smithfield Strawberry Tent.
We all use social media so the photos floating around of the trays of crisp bacon strips and a pocket of white or milk chocolate had piqued or interest. We ordered a tray to split with a nice pool of white chocolate for dipping.
As the sun beat down a wave of exhaustion hit us practically at the same time and we decided to go find a show on the grounds to watch while we took a moment to relax before running off to the next event. A voice from a microphone in the distance alerted us a show was about to begin.
We took our seats in the corner of the stands and watched in amusement as children jumped at the chance of representing their token racer. The stands were split up into sections and each section was assigned a runner. For those of you who are festival pros, you know exactly where this is going.
Yes, unconsciously, my friends and I found ourselves in the cheering crowd gathered to watch Robinson’s Racing Pigs. And yes, we were eating bacon slathered in freshly melted chocolate.
As Snoop Hoggy Hog overtook the frontrunner and rounded the corner to glory, consuming the crushed oreo cookie before his fellow pigs had the chance to get to the tray at the finish line I crunched down on a thick piece of sweet and salty pork.
As I swallowed, the realization of what we were doing hit me like a ton of bricks. There’s nothing quite like having a philosophical moral crisis in the middle of an athletic event with literal pigs as the highly trained competitors. Nietzsche’s warnings of staring into an abyss floated across my mind as the roaring of the crowd at Snoop’s victory echoed around me. I had never more seriously considered returning back to my former vegetarian lifestyle. To say the least I didn’t pick up another piece. My friends, however, gladly finished polishing off the batch.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the snack was absolutely delicious. However, I highly recommend you take them with you on a walk toward the Midway and avoid the edge of Kiddie Korral as much as possible.
Strawberry Cheesecake Elephant Ear
A sweet strawberry-flavored dough is flattened through a sheeter and deep fried. Then it is slathered with a thin layer of liquid butter, sprinkled with powdered sugar and topped with fresh-cut strawberries and a heaping mound of homemade cream cheese icing. Located at Best Around Funnel Cakes near Neighborhood Village.
Chocolate Strawberry Elephant Ear
This strawberry “elephant ear” is smothered in powdered sugar, a mound of freshly-cut berries and chocolate sauce. Located at Best Around Funnel Cakes near Neighborhood Village.
Apple fries are delicious treats that taste like crispy mini apple pies. Festival goers have the option of having them with caramel, whipped cream, ice cream and even bacon! As a bonus, apple fries are vegan and gluten-friendly, so those with these types of dietary restrictions can enjoy these treats as well. Located under the GT Grandstands at the Happy Dough Cookie Company.
French Onion Grilled Cheese
It has all your favorites of a great bowl of French onion soup, but in a sandwich. Behind the TECO Expo Hall at the Sunshine Grilled Cheese Concessions stand.
Cookie Barn’s Strawberry Cookie with White Chocolate Chips
All kinds of cookies are made fresh daily at the Cookie Barn. From classics like chocolate chip to strawberry and white chocolate, there’s something for everyone plus milk (and chocolate milk), hot chocolate and coffee for drinking and/or dunking purposes. The Cookie Barn is set up outside the northwest corner of the stadium exhibit hall.
Deep-Fried Ravioli Kabob
Spaghetti Eddie’s has created an Italian classic to go. Served with a side of marinara. Located near the Stingray Chevrolet Tent.
Strawberry Cream Cheese Delight Calzone
A traditional calzone gets a twist: fresh dough stretched flat, then piled high with a strawberry filling and deep fried until golden brown. Sprinkled with powdered sugar, drizzled with chocolate sauce and topped with rich whipped cream and served with a side of cream cheese for dipping. Located at Taylor’s Doughboy stand on the south side of the Parke Building.
Carousel’s new hamburger creations
Featuring two new hamburger creations, Carousel Concessions has skillfully sandwiched a hamburger patty between two deep-fried ramen noodle buns. If ramen noodles aren’t your thing, you should try the waffle bun piled high with fresh Plant City strawberries and sweet maple syrup. Located near Neighborhood Village.
Piggy Palace’s Strawberry Piggy Shortcake
A non-traditional take on a strawberry classic. The piggy shortcake includes sweet cornbread, pulled pork and a drizzle of homemade strawberry barbecue sauce. Located near Gate 10.
Peachey’s Baking Co., beloved for their Amish doughnuts, has created the S’mores Stack, a combination of their famous doughnuts topped with melted chocolate, marshmallow cream and a freshly toasted marshmallow. Find this sweet new treat at their Edwards Street location.
Chocolate-Covered Bacon Kabob
Featuring fresh Plant City strawberries on a kabob, covered with silky milk chocolate and showered with chunks of bacon. Located at the Strawberry Crepes stand near Woodrow Wilson Street.