Collin Sherwin wrote you a love letter. Not you specifically. To all of us. To Tampa. Earlier this month, Collin put fingertip to keyboard to write what was headlined as “A Spirited Defense of Tampa” at the online sports site VoodooFive.com. Not that Tampa needed defending, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Sherwin saw a writer at another website use a Tampa Sports Authority ticket raffle as the sharp end of a stick to poke fun. The giveaway benefitting youth sports raffled off annual tickets to Buccaneers, Rays, Lightning, Bulls, Storm and bowl games. “One of you should enter this, win, attend every single game, and write about the experience,” the writer suggested. “Here’s a free title: ‘My Tampa Sports Year — A Deathbed Regret As It Occurred.’” You may now chew your invisible gum. Collin didn’t think it was funny either. “The joke has been repeated so often and has meshed with real perception that I actually find myself having to defend my city to those uninitiated with its greatness and beauty,” his essay said. He told the story of a fellow blogger who came to visit during spring training. At the start of the trip, she told him she could never spend more than a few days here. By the end, she said, “I could totally live in Tampa!” He hears this confession frequently. “Nowhere does the perception and the reality oppose as diametrically as it does here,” he writes. To make his point, Sherwin pointed at the amazing food we enjoy. “We make our own coffee, and tag it with the simple but perfect ‘Brew Good, Do Good,’ … 24 hours a day, we make the most amazing Cuban bread on Earth. You haven’t lived until this has cured a hangover,” he wrote. He said it “is almost criminally unfair” to have both the Tampa Bay Brewing Company and Cigar City Brewing within city limits. “These places are beer revolutionaries, and CCB also makes what is arguably the best beer on the planet, which you can buy for all of one day a year,” he wrote. “It’s such a big deal they throw a rather awesome party to celebrate; just one part of a beer week where even the mayor jumps in to tap some IPA.” He draped some love around the shoulders of Ybor City, too. “You can find a Spanish restaurant that served as the home of a unionization revolution on one end of Seventh Avenue and a hipster coffee shop/beer bar/skate park hangout on the other. “This is my home, and I’m proud of her,” Sherwin wrote. “Come visit. I promise the reality will change your perception.” The column was a wild hit online, with close to 5,000 people sharing it on Facebook and other places. The column hit home with me because it’s something I’ve been saying for a while. It’s time to stop apologizing for things we shouldn’t feel sorry for. That idea especially rang true for me this year in the nominations for the James Beard Foundation Awards for excellence in food. Once again, Tampa and Central Florida chefs were nominated. And once again, the awards went to the cool kids from New Orleans and Miami. This is not a surprise. It has always been thus. There are few signs that the excellent chefs, restaurants and sommeliers among us will earn any kind of recognition beyond the condescending pat on the head. New Orleans will always be New Orleans. Miami will always be Miami. To that I say this: We’re done. It’s over. This is who we are. Those are not words of surrender. In my mind, they’re a declaration of defiance. For decades, Tampa has chased approval in the food world like a needy child. And for what? So that everyone could tell us how everything everywhere else was oh so much better. So that our best talent can move to other cities to work in their big-name kitchens. So that they can win the awards and earn acclaim. It’s time for us to square up and say that we really don’t care how anyone else does what they do. This is how we do things. This is Tampa style. It’s the Cuban sandwich at the Columbia Restaurant and the wings at Hooters. It’s the porterhouse at Bern’s and the Bloomin’ Onion at Outback. It’s the soul food on Hillsborough Avenue and the Pupusas on MLK, and the chicken and waffles on Florida Avenue. It’s Seabreeze devil crab and El Molino espresso and Revolution ice cream. It’s a million other flavors you can’t get anywhere else and a million more you can get everywhere. Why? Because they came from Tampa. If you don’t like it, don’t eat here.