EVERGLADES CITY — Sleepy Everglades City woke up with a jolt over the weekend. The annual Everglades Seafood Festival turned the fishing village into a carnival, and tens of thousands of visitors poured into town to get their fill of seafood, music and crowds.
McLeod Park, which hosts maybe a couple hundred people for the “Art in the Glades” shows, was ground zero for mountains of every conceivable kind of seafood, much of it prepared in the deep fryer, from vendors from all over the East, and as close as the local Baptist Church.
Clayton Singletary of Singletary’s Seafood, based in Thomasville, Georgia, said he had a “reefer” refrigerated semi-trailer of seafood on hand. Standing behind his booth, with a long display of shrimp, oysters, crabcakes, fish filets and much more, he watched his helpers pirouette back and forth, matching customers and platters.
“It’s like a ballet,” he said. “These girls are food artists. We have 500 lbs. of fish, 400 lbs. of shrimp, 400 lbs. of snow crab legs … we could feed everybody here.” He takes his operation from Cincinnati to New Jersey, “but this is as far as we go,” he said.
Efrain and Marisol Mendoza of Naples, munching on corn on the cob, said it took them years to get to the Seafood Festival.
“We’ve been saying we want to come forever. This year, we finally came,” said Efrain, standing out by wearing a necktie.
Vendors used tried-and-true techniques to entice festival-goers to their particular outlet. One food booth featured a busty female pirate mannequin out front, nearly bursting out of her top. Travis Goff at the Sons of Confederate Veterans stand used nonstop patter.
“Ya ain’t been to the south, till you get a hushpuppy in your mouth,” he intoned. “We got slap your mama, kiss your grandma hush puppies, and look at the size of that pork sandwich. If you can’t lift it, we got someone can help ya.”
Out on the midway, the hucksters did the same to pull in passersby for their games of chance.
“Stick a pig, win a pig,” urged Stanley Jackson, with a handful of darts. Arek Anderson, working the crowd with a hands-free mic, talked a muscled, shirtless young man into trying, and failing, to ring the bell by swinging an enormous hammer, and then showed how it is done successfully. The attendant at the Space Out game gave away free quarters for people to try his machine.
On the big stage, set up right in front of the historic City Hall, a succession of bands played to substantial crowds, all for free with no ticket required. Wild Eyed Southern Boys were followed by Big Bottom, before headliner David Nail and his band took their turn.
When people wanted to leave the crowd in front of the stage, they could join the crowds at the booths selling stuff from shea butter to toe rings, along with pickled garlic, peanut brittle, crystal lamps, sea salt scrub, dog beds, cigars, and a shellacked and mounted 24-lb. Maine lobster.
RVs were parked in every available space approaching the fairgrounds, and hundreds of motorcycles, overwhelmingly Harleys, turned the close-in parking into “Hog heaven.”
Eventually, the hardest thing about the Seafood Festival was leaving it. Literally. By 3:00 Saturday afternoon, traffic backed up for miles on two-lane State Road 29, heading out toward two-lane U.S. 41.
At 3:30 p,m,, sheriff’s deputies stepped in. They reversed the southbound traffic lane, making SR 29 two lanes heading out, and none heading in, and traffic got moving again.
Organizer Carol Foss, president of the Betterment Association of the Everglades Area, said they had over 75,000 visitors last year, and expected to top that this year, when the dust settles and the last Porta-Potti is trucked out.