Whenever the DeSoto Seafood Festival is back in town, Bradenton resident Willie Maye Stewart is sure to be there.
“This is my baby right here, the seafood fest,” she said. “I started out when they were downtown and been coming ever since.”
This year, she gets to share her “baby” with another baby: her 3-month-old grandson, A.J.
“I don’t miss it unless I’m sick somewhere,” she laughed.
Though it was a scorcher in Palmetto’s Sutton Park on Saturday afternoon, visitors were all smiles and full bellies at the second day of the 31st DeSoto Seafood Festival, sponsored by the Heintz & Becker law firm.
Under a large dining hall tent, between the samplings of lobster, Mahi-mahi, paella and hush puppies, a favorite at the festival was a massive crab cake helping: a warm, crumbling mash of just the right spices that even a seafood detester would adore.
Amber Cook Sargent had one plopped in the middle of her assortment of salad and skewered shrimp.
“We’re doing our last hurrah before we head north, so we’re at the seafood festival,” said the Illinois native, who spends her winters in the area. “The food is excellent and that’s what we came to do: eat.”
A big seller for Baltimore-based Chesapeake Foods was its shrimp and grits.
“We have a secret recipe,” president David Higginbottom said. “They’re cheesy grits, but we cook them in chicken stock and we add a lot of spices and even some bacon.”
One curious customer perused the booth’s choices including simmering jambalaya and fried oysters when Higginbottom suggested the grits. She said she wasn’t from the South, so grits were a no-go.
“People who have never tried grits, people who can’t stand grits; they all like them,” Higginbottom assured.
Are you hungry yet?
Aside from the delectable dishes, a melange of country music and classic rock live performances boomed from the speakers. Most listeners leaned back in foldable chairs while a few danced in the Florida heat. Palmetto Police estimated there were about 1,000 people at the event in mid-afternoon, but that number was expected to pick up as the day cooled and the minutes inched closer to headliner 38 Special, set to perform for an hour starting at 9 p.m.
Multiple vendors sold everything from crafts to knives and clothes. Some booths had kitschy signs, one that read like a Floridian blessing: “May you always have shells in your pocket and sand between your toes.” Another was a Floridian scripture of sorts: “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!!!”
This was Bradenton resident Karen Steiner’s first venture to the festival since moving to Palmetto a few years ago, but she had been to it multiple times when it was held in downtown Bradenton. But while she wasn’t too keen on the $5 entry fee and pricey dishes, she still enjoyed what was offered at the event.
“I’m not a big fish person, and I live here, right?” she said. “But I love coming out to this, getting a sample from different restaurants. It’s a good thing.”
You couldn’t miss the 70th Hernando DeSoto even if you tried, with his shiny gold armor and red and gold plumage. Zeke Eckerson was chosen last April to be the representative of the Spanish conquistador, also the festival’s namesake.
“This is just a great way to bring (together) our community of people around the Bradenton-Palmetto area,” he said. “The Lord has blessed us with this great weekend.”
The 2017 seafood festival closes Sunday, going from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. in Sutton Park.
If you go
What: Final day of the DeSoto Seafood Festival
Where: Sutton Park, Sixth Street West at 10th Avenue West in Palmetto.
When: Sunday, March 26 from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Cost: $5 for entry; tickets for food and drink $1 each (prices vary)
Music Lineup: Gumbo Boogie, Porch Dogs, and Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band