Food court is family affair
DADE CITY - From farm-raised catfish to deep-fried candy bars, it's safe to assume you can find anything to eat at the Pasco County Fair. Greeting fairgoers as they enter the food court — nestled between a fried candy bar vendor and a kettle corn stand — is a white food trailer with a large, hand-painted blue catfish named Cecil. The name of the food stand: Bite Me Southern Fried Catfish. The Lithia-based business snags farm-raised fish and shrimp from Texas. Their menu features fried pickles, fried green tomatoes, fried green beans, catfish, of course, and clam chowder, among other items.Owner Ann Strickland was introduced to the fair vendor business 20 years ago with her sister. They dished out catfish at the Florida State Fair for six years. Now, it's Strickland and her partners Shirley Betancourt and Al Porter who travel in and out of the state to different fairs and events. "I knew it was a big hit back then because there's not too many fairs that you walk into that you actually see real food," Strickland said. They participated in Bug Jam and Sparklebration for the first time last year and plan on returning this year. This is their first time at the Pasco County Fair. So what about that name? "It was a joke. We were discussing it in the truck one day — what we were going to name it — and I said something and (Ann) came back with, 'Bite Me,' " Betancourt said of the unintentional business name. "I said, 'That sounds good.' " Deeper into the food court — past concessions trailers filled with hot dogs, Polish sausages, Italian sausages, kabobs and caramel apples — is Eddie Porcelli and his Spaghetti Eddie's Pizza and Pasta. He has a variety of options to suit one's palate. Porcelli's got pasta with sauce, garlic bread, meatballs and the staple — pizza. He even has salad. The Volusia County resident stopped counting how many years he's been to the Pasco County Fair. He says it's a family vibe that keeps him coming back and at ease when he's pounding out fresh dough on the spot. "It's a truly unique situation," Porcelli said. "I guess you can attribute it to leadership. It's very unique from the aspect all the vendors treat each other like family. The business is competition, but there's no underhanded competition. It's all on a level playing field. Everyone helps everyone. For example, if you run out of something, someone will let you borrow it, stuff like that." Adding to the family feel is fair General Manager Jim Ward. He's traveled to fairs in other parts of Florida and has connected with many of the same vendors. They greet each other with a smile and a meal. "This is all family," Ward said. Just behind the Ferris wheel inside the MaDill Building, Peyton Russell was busy with homework. She was calculating fractions. Russell, granddaughter of Earl and Wanda Singletary, also was assisting her aunt, Kathy Wilbanks, manning Wanda's Strawberry Booth. They serve the desert of all deserts: Strawberry Pizza. Not a traditional baked pizza, the dish consists of a pecan crust with a cream cheese mixture in the middle and strawberries on the top. It's sliced and crowned with whipped cream. "(People) ask what is it and we'll have to tell them what it is," Wilbanks said. "And they'll go, 'Oh that sounds good!' " Wilbanks, raised in Lacoochee before moving to Lithia, said she and her sister would come to the fair as teens by themselves. She never imagined working a booth. "Never crossed my mind," she said laughing. The fair continues through Sunday at the Pasco County Fairgrounds. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children 6 to 12. Parking is free.
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