Since 1904, the people of Tampa, Florida have celebrated the exploits of Spanish Navy admiral-turned-bloodthirsty pirate Jose Gaspar. From 1783 to 1821, Gaspar terrorized the coast of Spanish Florida aboard the Floridablanco, capturing over 400 ships. He put his prisoners to death, unless they happened to be beautiful women, in which case, he’d simply drop them off at Captiva Island to become part of his harem, or to await ransom payment.
In 1821, the aging Gaspar decided he was ready to retire. However, as he and his crew were dividing their spoils, they spotted a merchant ship that looked like easy pickings, and couldn’t resist. They advanced and were prepared to strike, when suddenly, the ship ran out its guns, hoisted the flag, and revealed itself as the US Navy pirate hunting ship, the USS Enterprise.
Yes, the USS Enterprise.
A vicious battle ensued, and when it was clear that the Floridablanco was lost, Gaspar decided he would not die at the enemy’s hands. Instead, he wrapped the anchor chain around himself and threw himself overboard.
If this story sounds a little fishy to you, that’s probably because it was almost certainly invented by Tampa’s city leaders to drum up some travel and tourism dollars. It worked, and to this day, the Gasparilla Pirate Fest pumps millions of dollars into the local economy.
As for Gaspar, it’s fairly likely that he never even existed, but it’s still a pretty good story.
What exactly happens during Pirate Fest? Now, that is a story that rivals the legend of Jose Gaspar.
While planning a simple little citywide festival, the society editor of the Tampa Tribune, Louise Frances Dodge, got the idea to incorporate Gaspar into the proceedings. In response, a group of raucous locals formed a secret organization, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, and on the day of the festival, rode into Tampa on horseback and “took the city.”
It became an annual tradition. Eventually, the Krewe commissioned a full-scale replica pirate ship, the Jose Gasparilla, so now, each year, they invade the city from the sea. Then, they march into town, and the Mayor of Tampa gives the pirates a key to the city. Then there’s a parade, during which many different Krewes throw beads, dubloons, and various treats into the crowd, while (according to the Wikipedia article) “shooting blank pistols from floats.”
In 1961, the Junior League of Tampa decided to style the now-legendary Gasparilla Cookbook around the annual tradition, and around the city’s traditions of Spanish, Cuban, Greek, and Italian cooking.
Ruth Beck Bakalar, editorial director of Gourmet magazine called The Gasparilla Cookbook “the most ambitious of community cookbooks.” Ladies Home Journal said it was “delightful,” and McCall’s, “one of the nicest regional cookbooks I’ve seen.”
It’s an amazing regional cookbook, written by people who truly understand the foodways of their city, and write about it well. They lovingly describe the yard-long loaves of Cuban bread which, in the early 1900s, were home-delivered – “the deliveryman, swinging the loaf of bread like a bat would impale it on a nail hammered to the side of a customer’s house,” and the bowls of Spanish bean soup served up during the Gasparilla Festival in Ybor City, the city’s Latin Quarter (which also turns up in quite a few Hold Steady songs) – “white-aproned chefs ladle out steaming cups of bright yellow Garbanzo soup rich with beans, potatoes, and Chorizo sausage. It’s almost unbelievable to see the curbings lines with tourists of every age and description sitting happily savoring their soup and Cuban bread.”
Though The Gasparilla Cookbook doesn’t have a recipe for Cuban bread, it does include one for the famous bean and Chorizo soup, so there was no way I could resist putting it on my menu. And since Tampa is also known for a wide variety of seafood dishes, I decided to take on a little bit of shellfish.
I would highly recommend downloading the guide for your region – it makes seafood shopping a snap, and helps to ensure that you’re choosing seafood that isn’t overfished, or fished in ways that harm ocean ecosystems.
Next up: I go to the butcher, and buy, like, everything.