IMMOKALEE — It wasn’t 1,200 pounds of steak that caused 700 tickets to be pre-sold.
Nor was it an excuse to wear cowboy hats, boots, and jeans on a workday. No, 1,000 people came to the 55th Annual Farm City BBQ on Wednesday for one reason — a tradition of giving thanks.
With a $20 ticket, community members, some dressed in their line-dancing best, were able to enjoy a steak, donated by the Florida Farm Bureau; an Immokalee salad, made from all local produce; beer (with tip donation preferred); and freshly-picked ears of corn.
Cyndee Woolley, Chairwoman of the Farm City BBQ, has been organizing the event for nine years. Over the last five years, $100,000 has been raised and given to the 4-H Club Foundation, Youth Leadership of Collier County and the Collier CountyJunior Deputy League.
This year, the event is expected to raise more money for the local youth. It was held at the Nobles Collier Packing Plant while tomato packers continued their day as normal despite the festivities in the sectioned off front part of the factory.
“Anything to do with kids is important to me,” said Burt Zino, the grill master, who has been cooking with the same team of people for 10 years.
Zino takes pride in the cause, in his cooking and keeping himself safe from the heat emanating from the giant grill. He used a stick that’s about the length of his arm and has a fork on the end — which looks like it has been used for as long as Zino has been volunteering — to flip the 1 1/2 inch top-butt sirloin and ensure it is grilled until the center has just turned pink.
Zino and his team, which included a couple teens, also cooked up kielbasa, wrapped pieces of it in fresh rolls from Publix and passed them out to event workers, who usually do not get to eat during the event.
“Even if you don’t like meat, its tradition,” he said passing out a sampling to Pat Cookson, one of his team members who has been working the event for 35 years.
Tradition is at the root of the event — from its purpose, to its preparation, to merging family traditions with that of the area.
“I know people don’t think cooking steaks is fun, but it is” Cookson said. “I don’t go anywhere for Thanksgiving so I can do this.”
For the past four years, she has been transitioning her daughter into the preparation role.
For Cookson, coming to help is her way of giving thanks to the community and is also the underlying reason for the event’s existence.
“It began nationally as a way to bring city dwellers and farmers together,” Woolley said. “It was a way to show them where their food comes from.”
But here in Collier County, the barbecue’s idea was born of a bad crop. Because the farmers were having a bad year, they were invited to a BBQ. The following year, the farmers reciprocated and thus tradition was born, Woolley said.
“This was a good chance to get out in the community and see the other side of county officials, a different side of the community,” said Staff Sergeant Barry Cuerden Jr., a Marines recruiter.
Diners enjoyed the afternoon with country music and their plate of food, that was served to them by county commissioners, state representatives and the Collier County Sheriff, to name a few. They ate on stacks of wooden tomato box crates that were raised to the height of a table with salt, pepper and butter resting in the middle.
“I’m giving back to the community, making a connection with the hard working people that supply the food,” Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said, while serving baked beans with an ice-cream scooper to a patron’s plate.
Though not donning cowboy boots, Allen Weiss, the president of NCH Healthcare Systems, was there with his brother and son-in-law and a plate full of food to help support the event.
“It’s good to put ourselves with the whole community,” he said “and have a little fun while we’re doing the right thing.”