All you can eat

Cheffy Baby, topless steaks, the harshest restaurant review ever, and more from the last 25 years of CL.

click to enlarge TASTY MEMORIES: A knife-wielding former mayor Sandy Freedman (left) graced a March 1991 column. - Creative Loafing Tampa 1991
Creative Loafing Tampa 1991
TASTY MEMORIES: A knife-wielding former mayor Sandy Freedman (left) graced a March 1991 column.

I’ve had a long love affair with Creative Loafing, one that literally covers the span of my existence. I always viewed it as a thread binding the underground fibers of this town — a guidebook for those who live their lives with punk-like sensibility. There’s the time, not long after Creative Loafing Tampa began, when a family member found the magazine in my Dad’s possession and thought it was a handbook for mooching off the government. Or when a certain journalism professor of mine told stories about Creative Loafing in his slow but deliberate Louisiana drawl, nibbling on the end of his eyeglasses, recalling heavy pours and long happy nights at Café Creole with our founder Ben Eason.

Or the story (confirmed by longtime employee Gia Coppi) about the time Eason was looking to relocate Weekly Planet into the old Maas Brothers building in downtown Tampa and open a brewpub on the ground floor. (The plan never materialized.)

After sifting through decades of issues over the last few months, I found that the food section here has quite a lineage. In the early 1990s, Chef Miles Norris (a deranged Mario Brother lookalike) brandished a fuggedaboutit attitude every week. His “MacDill Triangle” theory has been debunked since 1991 (see our review of Datz and Dough), but back then Chef Miles noted that the avenue was a great spot to “watch restaurants disappear before our very eyes.” Former Mayor Sandy Freedman appeared in Cheffy Baby’s column on March 16, 1991:

“Rumor has it Mayor Sandy secretly wishes she were a Cheffy Baby. Perhaps every day when she sits behind her desk she dreams of slicing and dicing more than just the budget… Because she was so hip to hold my knives THIS WEEK’S CHEFFY BABY CHEF’S SECRET comes from Mayor Sandy Freedman: ‘Don’t be afraid to improvise.’”

Norris, who left CL for the Tampa Tribune and went on to TV cooking fame as Cheffy Baby, says that he thought of CL’s food writers as being “secret informers of the culinary underbelly and seekers of the next great bite.”

WMNF Develop-ment Director Laura Taylor got her first print job here in 1988. Six degrees of Creative Loafing, anyone?

“I was paid to go out and write about some of the most popular restaurants of the late 1980s. Paid! It was at Skipper’s Smokehouse where I first had gator tail! Whatever was lacking in me as a full-fledged Floridian was fulfilled with that assignment.”

Janet Zink, director of communications for Tampa International Airport and former Tampa Bay Times reporter, wrote about food for us, too.

“I consider eating a hobby, so this was about the best job I could imagine … I reviewed the Wine Exchange in Hyde Park when they first opened. I loved it then. I love it now.”

One of the food section’s first editors, Joyce LaFray, remembered one meal in St. Petersburg vividly.

“While reviewing a well-known Thai restaurant on the south side of St. Petersburg, two roaches crawled across our table. I immediately summoned the waitress. ‘No problem!’ she exclaimed as she hammered them with the side of her fist, leaving them stunned but not yet dead. She then wiped up the remainders with a dirty cloth and said, ‘Now what can I get you nice ladies to eat?’ We suddenly remembered a doctor’s appointment we forgot.”

Then there was longtime food writer Bonnie Boots’ infamous 2000 review of the 8th Avenue Grille. At the time, Survivor’s rat-eating sequence had just shocked viewers. It might be the harshest review we’ve ever printed:

“People are still blabbering about the rat-eating segment on Survivor. Spare me. Put some salsa on one of those roasted rodents and I’ll trade it in a heartbeat for the meal I just had at 8th Avenue Grille. But perhaps I’m being a little harsh in my opinion. Let me double-check. After all, I want to be fair. Nope. I just checked with my taste buds, and we all agree. We’d rather eat a rat.”

Diana Peterfreund, now a popular fiction writer (and author of a beloved YA series called The Secret Society Girl), wrote for our food section back in 2004.

She now lives in Washington D.C., where she remembers her time at Creative Loafing fondly.

“In a moment of desperation, I posed for the cover of a food issue while wearing a bikini and eating a grouper sandwich (but that was a lot of meals and one kid ago). I went to Venice for Schnitzel and Land O’Lakes for Italian, and once I had the best piña colada of my life at a beach bar as far inland as Brandon.”

Katie Machol, former food editor and current contributor of delicious recipes, remembered a very intimate meal with Sex & Love Editor Shawn Alff.

“One of my fondest memories (and most memorable meals) of my time with CL is when [Shawn] and I were invited to dine at The Penthouse Club in Tampa… It was a time of many firsts for me: my first meal at a steak house in a gentleman’s club, first time seeing a topless entertainer, and my first time seeing someone getting a lap dance while enjoying a meal. Needless to say, it was also the first time that I had a difficult time finishing a delicious meal.”

Food Editor Brian Ries still receives hate mail on past restaurant reviews, even though he left CL for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune long ago. Agree or disagree, his writing garnered major responses that I field to this day. One classic response (to his 2008 review of Hooters):

“This review sounds like it was written by someone who needs to work on the leftovers of sexual suppression floating around in his brain.”

Then there’s the food-related news stories we’ve told, some of which we broke. Several issues continue to come up: food safety, label laws, the fight to get some good beer into this town.

After an interview with Food and Water Watch’s Wenonah Hauter last week, Creative Director Todd Bates brought up his original 35 mm print from the two-part series on food irradiation that ran in Creative Loafing in 1991. Hauter, a longtime food activist, remembered the Florida controversy and Michael Upledger’s “critical examination of the nuclear industry’s self-touted ‘miracle’ preservative.” A food irradiation plant owned by a company called Vindicator was being built in nearby Mulberry, Fla., but little was known about the long-term effects of food irradiation. The issue is not unlike the current battle to label GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Former CL writer and WMNF reporter Andrew Stelzer’s Jan. 9, 2008 cover story, “A Whopper of a Fight,” detailed farmworkers’ crusade for higher wages and better treatment in Wimauma, Ruskin, Dade City, and Immokalee. The campaign, led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, focused on Burger King.

“The CIW has reason to believe they can win this fight. After all, they have already taken on Taco Bell and McDonald’s — and won,” Stelzer wrote. “Their goal: convince Burger King, which is headquartered in Miami, to raise tomato pickers’ wages a penny a pound.”

The CIW got Burger King to agree to their terms. Today, Publix remains one of the few companies who haven’t signed on with the CIW. CL spoke with CIW workers marching to Publix’s Lakeland headquarters only a few weeks ago, in hopes they’d agree to sign on to the Fair Food Program. Publix maintains that the CIW’s request is really a labor dispute between the CIW and growers.

Reading Strange Brew by Jane Musgrave and Jennifer Johnson (March 20, 1997) on Florida’s strange bottle-size laws reminded me of the current battle for 64-ounce growler legalization. Florida only allowed 8, 12, 16, and 32-ounce containers for beer, preventing any import beers to come into the state simply because of the container size. Johnson and Musgrave traced the law back to the infamous deal with Anheuser-Busch to bring the brewery to Jacksonville and Tampa. The state gave them lots of incentives; legislating imports out of Florida made the deal just a little sweeter.

“I didn’t realize how powerful Budweiser really was,” said Al Johnson, beer enthusiast and spirit store owner of the law at the time. Johnson and Musgrave uncovered $104,000 in campaign donations from the beer industry during the 1996 fall elections. The bottle-size laws were abolished in 2001, but the ban on 64-ounce growlers remains in effect (legislation currently pending). All this history is enough to crush a 20-something food editor to smithereens. But I’d like to think Jon Palmer Claridge and I carry the torch (or perhaps you think it’s more like a baby votive candle in the wind). I'd like to believe that Tampa Bay’s edible scene is better than ever, but only the next 25 years will tell.

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