A history of Tampa in 10 Meals

You can tell a lot about a city by the way it breaks bread (Cuban and otherwise).

click to enlarge MARTI IN THE MIDDLE: Cuban hero Jose Marti, surrounded by followers on the steps of the Martinez Yborcigar factory in 1892. - Usf Special Collections Department
Usf Special Collections Department
MARTI IN THE MIDDLE: Cuban hero Jose Marti, surrounded by followers on the steps of the Martinez Yborcigar factory in 1892.

If food defines culture, then what kind of city is Tampa? The answer can be found in these 10 notable meals, which together offer a taste of the city's charmingly crazy history.

Fort Brooke Festivities, 1824

United States soldiers and a band of Seminole Indians gathered at remote Fort Brooke to celebrate Independence Day in 1824. And boy, did they celebrate: The participants raised glasses of liquor in countless toasts to the accompaniment of 21-gun salutes.

More than a decade of peace followed the festivities, but the fellowship of old proved elusive. The Second Seminole War began in 1835 and decimated Florida's struggling Indians. Today, Fort Brooke is memorialized with the mighty Fort Brooke Parking Facility.

Ybor City's First Christmas Eve, 1886

Having just moved his factories to Tampa, cigar factory owner Vicente Martinez Ybor feared his restive workers would slip back to Key West or Cuba for the holidays and never return. So he and his wife acted fast: They invited workers and their families for a Christmas Eve (or Noche Buena) feast at his mansion amid the swamps and sand.

There was a Christmas surprise: As a sign of gratitude, Ybor divided the profits between his workers, $6,000 in all, or about a month's wages per worker. Ybor's gesture won his employees' confidence, and Cigar City survived to delight and vex generations of Tampans and tourists.

Tampa Bay Hotel Opens, 1891

When tycoon Henry Plant brought his railroad to Tampa in 1884, he found a pathetic hardscrabble town of 700 people. But in the years after the railroad connection, Tampa's elite clamored for Plant to open a luxury hotel in his latest terminus.

On Feb. 5, 1891, Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel opened with a grand ball. At 9 that evening, the capacity crowd enjoyed an opera. Then Mayor Herman Glogowski led a grand procession to the dining room for a reception and dancing. At 11, a buffet offered oysters, fish, cold roasts, salad and desserts. The party didn't wind down until 1 a.m.; the guests slept on couches and chairs in the lobby, as the bedrooms had not yet been furnished.

The Tampa Bay Hotel frequently made headlines, especially during the Spanish-American war when journalists and generals commiserated from the veranda's rocking chairs. The kitchen served up lavish meals with menus written entirely in mangled French. But with a short tourist season of just four months, the hotel never really flourished. The old Tampa Bay Hotel is now home to the University of Tampa and the Henry Plant museum.

Jose Marti poisoned, 1893

Jose Marti — poet, politician and martyr of Cuban independence — visited Tampa on about 17 occasions. He gave enthralling speeches, raised funds for the Cuban insurrection against Spain and almost got himself killed here in 1893. One night, Spanish secret agents bribed Marti's bodyguards and poisoned his drink (some say tea, others insist it was gin). When the would-be Spanish assassins were discovered, they begged an ill Marti for forgiveness, which he gave. Marti recovered at the home of Paulina Pedroso (on Eighth Avenue and 13th Street), a sympathetic Afro-Cuban. In 1895, Marti landed in Cuba to join the insurrection, where he promptly died in battle. He left a great literary canon and a newborn nation behind.

A later owner of the Pedroso home deeded the land to the Cuban government in the 1950s, and it became Marti Park. Years later, the vandalizing of the striking Marti sculpture kicked off a proud Ybor tradition of statue desecration and theft.

The Free Love Banquet, mid-1880s

Sometime around 1885, one of Tampa's most notorious meals took place: the Free Love Society's lusty banquet. The host was Frederick Leontiff Weightnovel, a self-proclaimed doctor from Russia who had concocted his own brand of hair tonic. A tall, flamboyant long-haired hedonist, Weightnovel treated "feminine complaints" from his office downtown in the remnants of Fort Brooke. He was known to abort unwanted pregnancies.

Tampa's own Rasputin held his Free Love Society banquet at the Old Habana Hotel in Ybor City. Thirty of Tampa's most eligible (and incorrigible) bachelors arrived on horseback, clad in colorful costumes and sashes. Multiple aphrodisiac-laden courses of food greeted them inside, served by African-American women naked from head to toe. Even the anarchists of Ybor City reacted with outrage.

Weightnovel and his Free Love society got a free ride to jail that night, and it would not be his last. After a young woman died in his care in1902, police arrested him again. His two trials riveted the city, until the ill doctor was sentenced to hard labor in a prison camp. Ever defiant, he poisoned himself rather than submit to the sentence.

Today, Tampa celebrates debauchery and poisons itself on days named after a fictitious pirate. Weightnovel may not be the pirate Jose Gaspar, but at least he's real.

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