Tampa natives know that there’s plenty of good barbecue in this town, but James Beard-nominated chef Greg Baker went ahead and showed PBS where it is.
It happened when North Carolina chef chef Vivian Howard (the James Beard, Emmy and Peabody-winning star of PBS’ “A Chef’s Life”) brought a new show from the network, “Somewhere South,” to the Bay area.
Baker, famous for his pioneering Seminole Heights restaurant The Refinery and its cousin Fodder & Shine, brought Howard to BJ’s Alabama BBQ, located at 3307 S. Dale Mabry Hwy. where they noshed on pit mistress and owner April Moreno’s ribs, sausage, slaw and famous collard greens while talking Florida history.
“Florida has just been kind of this melting pot of people coming down for the better part of 200 years,” Baker explained. “You’ve got to remember this place was a very late joiner to the U.S. by comparison to other eastern states.”
The pair then headed to Myakka’s Strickland Ranch where rancher Renee Toussaint-Strickland gave Howard the rundown on her collection of cracker cattle, all descendants of cows brought to Florida by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. Toussaint and friends—including Punta Gorda's Big John Lloyd—throw a cracker barbecue for Howard, and Baker puts a salt-crusted cracker cattle chuck on the table, too.
The highlight of the nearly 17-minute segment, however, comes when Howard heads to Terra Ceia Island, 40 miles south of downtown Tampa, where Baker made his debut in the town’s famed mullet smoke-off. He didn’t win, but Howard got to catch some mullet and immerse herself in the contest.
The episode is a great distraction from the swirling news cycle and a welcome reminder of the uniquely Floridian food culture. Howard told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that she, too, has managed to stay busy during the pandemic.
“I can’t complain. It’s been nice to be both busy and grounded. I’ve enjoyed not traveling. I like having work to do, but I also really have enjoyed just having dinner every night with my kids and being at home on the weekends,” she wrote in an email, adding that she was already familiar with the Bay area before the “Somewhere South” taping.
“My sister lives in Tampa. My aunt lives in Seminole. We went there every summer to visit my aunt,” Howard told CL. “I have probably spent more time in the Tampa area than any other place except eastern North Carolina and other places where I have lived.”
Would she come back after the coronavirus gets under control?
“I would definitely go back to the mullet festival. That smoked mullet was really one of the top three things I ate while making ‘Somewhere South.’ It was really surprising because I didn’t expect to love it so much,” Howard added. “I actually think Tampa is sort of underrated. There’s so much to do. There’s a neat Cuban corner of Tampa with a vibrant culture and food scene.”
We can’t wait to get back into it either, chef. Thanks for the reminder.
Watch the episode via pbs.org.
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