Food, family, fun, health: The 2021 Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival did not disappoint

Just shy of his 97th birthday, Mordecai Walker (middle) was crowned the 2021 Collard Green King. Pictured here with his son Andrew Walker (left) and event co-founder Boyzell Hosey. Photos courtesy of Octavio Jones

BY MARK PARKER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The fourth annual Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival, held Saturday, May 15, was a resounding success despite organizers switching from a virtual to a drive-thru format and then finally to a hybrid in-person and virtual event.

“We’re really happy the way the festival turned out this year – actually, pretty ecstatic,” said co-founder Boyzell Hosey. “Early on, we considered canceling altogether, but members of the community encouraged us to find a way. The turnout, weather, and the overall good vibe are still being talked about in a lot of circles.”

Held behind the Chief’s Creole Café on The Deuces, the sights, sounds, and smells were a delight to the senses as you walked in. Kids joyfully ran around and played with each other, seemingly without a care in the world. Music to put you in a lively spirit was everywhere, and the rhythmic sounds of the drum circle could always be heard in the background.

Healing Fyah led the drum circle that also featured Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet. They kept the crowd moving and dancing in between presentations and were one of many highlights of the day.

Then there was the food.

Immediately upon entering, the smell of collards that had been cooking all day wafted through the air. A scent that likely brought many people back to grandma’s house for Sunday dinners. The greens had their own area to enjoy them, and for just $5, people were treated to a smorgasbord of the popular southern dish.

Collard greens are not just a tasty staple of southern cooking; they also provide many health benefits.

“Collard greens are extremely nutrient-rich, contributing ample amounts of vitamins A, K, B-6, and C, calcium, iron, and magnesium,” said Rachel Lustgarten, a dietician specializing in nutrition at Weill Cornell Medicine to Prevention.com. “Health benefits of collards include lowered cancer risk and improved heart health.”

These benefits were behind the idea for the collard green smoothies handed out by members of the American Culinary Federation of Tampa Bay. While the idea itself may turn some people off, they gave out hundreds of samples, and nearly everyone that tried them came away impressed. They tasted like a banana and grape smoothie, except with the added benefits of the collard greens.

Mary Frances from GiGi’s Playhouse was the inaugural collard green recipe winner. Photo courtesy of Octavio Jones.

The ACF also organized the first high school collard green recipe winner. Mary Frances from GiGi’s Playhouse was the inaugural winner. GiGi’s offers free educational, therapeutic-based and career development programs for individuals with Down syndrome.

Frances’ chocolate and collard green cupcakes were a colossal hit. Not only did she enthusiastically pass out samples, but they also gave out free cans of collard greens. Judging by Frances’ beaming smile, she seemed to be having the time of her life, sharing her delectable creation with anyone that passed by.

While the ubiquitous collard green was the star of the show, there was a myriad of food vendors to satisfy almost any craving. Keeping with the focus on health and nutrition, most of these options did not just taste good but were also good for you. There were fresh and locally grown vegetables, eggs, and even vegan soul food.

Keeping with the focus on promoting the wellbeing of the community, the festival also featured a number of vendors providing free services. These included free COVID tests, signing people up for Medicare, and registering people to vote. There were booths promoting mental health and literacy, and Urban Agriculture was teaching people about urban farming.

Carla Bristol (left) and the Youth Farm Participants| Photo courtesy of Octavio Jones.

When Carla Bristol and some of her kids from the St. Petersburg Youth Farm took the stage to discuss some of the many benefits of the farm, one young man, in particular, received a rousing ovation for his sincere, public appreciation for the work and effort that Bristol puts into the project and its children.

“I am so thankful for Carla,” said Justin Bowman, 16. “She is so powerful in the community and gives us the most important thing – her time.”

“Choked up, unexpected,” said Bristol when asked her reaction to the kind words.

The in-person portion of the event was concluded with a special presentation to Mordecai Walker, the 2021 Collard Green King.

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association, gave a rousing speech detailing the abundance of contributions that Walker has made to the community during his long and prosperous life, noticeably fighting back tears at times.

“A couple of months short of 97, he is still a pillar in the community,” Reese said.

After telling the story of Walker acquiring a couple of the original green benches that are fondly remembered by some and a source of hurt and humiliation by others from St. Pete’s past — one of which sits in Walker’s front yard today — Reese said, “Not only does he own part of our history, he is part of our history.”

While scaled back this year, the 2021 Tampa Bay Collard Green festival was not short on food, family, fun, and health and was enjoyed by a diverse crowd of all colors and ages that were happy to be able to come together again.

“This year’s turnout was absolutely fabulous; I could not have prayed for a better outcome,” said co-founder Samantha Harris. “I met so many people from various walks of life enjoying the festivities with their families, friends, and even pets. I am so glad we decided to push forward this year.”

If all goes according to plan, the 2022 festival will be held on Feb 19, from 10-5p.m.

To reach Mark Parker, email mparker@theweeklychallenger.com

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