The beautiful St. Petersburg campus of The University of South Florida (USFSP) was taken over by literary types yesterday, as the Tampa Bay Times hosted their annual festival of reading. There were over 50 participating authors at the festival, speaking and signing books at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and various other locations on campus. The event was scheduled from 10 am to 4 pm., and if you stayed for the whole thing, you had the opportunity to attend six distinct authors’ talks or readings. There were a total of 48 different talks in 8 different locations on campus, but the talks overlapped in such a way that one had to pick and choose. Still, the sheer number of possibilities was intoxicating.
Unfortunately, my desire to sleep in and get a cup of Starbucks coffee prevailed over my desire to be at USFSP by noon, and I didn’t arrive until 1 pm. I did, however, arrive in time for Robert Butler’s reading from his latest novel, Perfume River. The jacket sleeve suggests that the book is about the Vietnam War, but that’s only touching the surface. According to Butler, the book is about the boomer generation, secrets kept in families, and the tendency of the past to creep into the present. Many of Butler’s books, he says 6 or 7, deal with Vietnam in some way. One of these, Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Butler is a Vietnam veteran, which explains the prevalence of Vietnam in his fiction. But Butler wasn’t your typical soldier. He spent a stint in intelligence, then learned the Vietnamese language and started working as a translator in Saigon during the war. He fell in love with the country and the culture of Vietnam, and has returned four times since the war.
Now Butler lives in Florida. Like Robert Quinlin, the main character in Perfume River, Robert Butler is a professor at Florida State University. But while Quinlin teaches history, Butler teaches creative writing. In many ways, the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading was like a who’s who of Florida writers.
Other notable Florida writers present were Craig Pittman, journalist for the Tampa Bay Times and author of Oh Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country; Tim Dorsey, a well-known writer of wacky Florida crime novels; Eliot Kleinberg, writer of Weird Florida, Historical Traveler’s Guide to Florida, and 9 other Florida-focused books; Brad Meltzer, author of a dozen bestselling thrillers; Gary Monroe, who writes specifically about Florida art; “Florida literary legend,” Randy Wayne White; and New York Times bestselling author, Lisa Unger.
The next talk I attended was not by a Florida Writer. Jim Webster currently lives in Washington D.C., where he is a food writer for The Washington Post. But before that, Webster wrote for the Miami Herald and then the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). For his latest project, Webster worked with Mario Batali to assemble a cookbook of recipes from across America. They culled a list of 800-900 regional American dishes down to 250 recipes for the book.
From Florida, the chosen dishes were Key Lime Pie, Stone Crab Claws with mustard sauce, and Devil Crab hand pies. I’ve actually never had a Devil Crab hand pie, but apparently they are famous in Tampa. They are a historic food choice, popular in Ybor City in the early 1900’s, but they are still available at Brocato’s sandwich shop, Michelle Fado’s On the Go (food truck), Neyda’s Buy & Fly Café, Pipo’s (croquetas de jaiva), and West Tampa Sandwich shop. Check out “In Tampa, the Street Food that Crawled from the Sea,” by John Edge of the New York Times to learn more. The Cuban sandwich and black bean soup were originally considered for the book also, but didn’t make the cut.
Webster spoke of America’s food history, focusing on Thomas Jefferson’s role, and of his travels around the country to taste various regional foods in the name of research for this book. He cites Charleston, New Orleans, and New Mexico as three cities that he kept returning to throughout the course of his research. A woman in the audience from Ohio, The Buckeye State, says that she has already tried the book’s recipe for buckeyes and they were the best she’d ever tasted.
After Webster’s talk I made my way over to the area outside of the Multipurpose Student Center, where Barnes & Noble, local book publishers, writing associations, and authors had set up tents for the shopping pleasure of everyone on campus. The University Press of Florida was there selling books, including books by two of the speakers, Gary Monroe and Albert Hine.
Back home, I page through my copy of Mario Batali and Jim Webster’s Big American Cookbook, relishing the fresh, clean pages and new book smell. Soon it will be splattered in oils and sauces and smell like my kitchen.