Five things every Floridian should eat, drink, read, watch and listen to at least once

Wade Tatangelo
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

There are so many fun things to do in Florida. But what are the essentials? We’ve shared our favorite beachesbeachfront restaurants and places for barbecue but for this story we decided to be more specific. Get down to the bucket-list essentials, for both longtime residents and newbies, as well as snowbirds and visitors.

So, here it is. Five things every Floridian should eat, drink, read, watch and listen to at least once. 

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The world-famous Cuban sandwich at Columbia Restaurant in Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood.

1. Eat a Cuban sandwich from Columbia Restaurant

Florida is famous for many foods including stone crabs, Key lime pie, grouper and, yes, fried gator. But none are quite as universally appealing as a well-made Cuban sandwich, which is what Columbia Restaurant has been serving for over a century. Founded in 1905 and recognized as the oldest restaurant in Florida, Columbia’s Cuban contains baked ham, Genoa salami, mojo-marinated roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on freshly baked Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery, which was established in 1915. In addition to the iconic original in Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood, Columbia has restaurant locations in Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater and Orlando, with a Columbia Cafe found along Tampa Riverwalk at the Tampa Bay History Center as well as one at Tampa International Airport.

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How about outdoor fun in Tampa Bay?:Five best places for outdoor fun in Tampa Bay

The Original Rum Runner frozen drink at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar, now part of The Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina on Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

2. Drink a Rum Runner at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar

The most famous cocktail created in Florida, the Rum Runner originated in the 1970s at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar, now part of The Postcard Inn Beach Resort and Marina, on Islamorada in the Florida Keys. The story goes that tiki bar manager John Elber (aka “Tiki John”) had to use an excess of rum and other liqueurs before the arrival of new inventory. These days, the newly redesigned Holiday Isle Tiki Bar overlooking the Atlantic Ocean serves the Original Rum Runner as a frozen drink made with Bacardi Superior Rum, Myers’s Rum, blackberry brandy, banana liqueur, pineapple juice, lime juice and grenadine.

Thirsty for more adult libations?:7 cocktails that define Florida (and are perfect for summer)

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston

3. Read ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston 

Florida has produced lots of first-rate crime fiction by authors like John D. MacDonald, Charles Willeford, Carl Hiaasen, Randy Wayne White, Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan and Tim Dorsey. For classic literature, though, the bucket list essential is Black feminist icon Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Set in Central Florida where the author grew up before relocating to Fort Pierce, where she died in 1960, it’s the poignant and evocative story of Janie Crawford’s search for identity. A proud, independent Black woman, Janie says she has done “two things everbody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” Initially panned by male reviewers, the book was named one of the “100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present” in 2005 by Time magazine. 

More great books:100 Black novelists and fiction writers you should read, from Abi Daré to Zora Neale Hurston

Alex Hibbert in a scene from the film “Moonlight.”

4. Watch ‘Moonlight’ by Barry Jenkins 

Florida has been the setting for an impressive list of films including such box-office hits as “Cocoon,” “The Birdcage,” and “Magic Mike” as well as Best Picture Oscar winner “The Greatest Show on Earth.” None of these films, though, had nearly the cultural impact of “Moonlight,” which came out in 2016. Filmed in director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins’ home city of Miami, the coming-of-age drama brilliantly depicts three stages of the main character’s life as he grows from childhood to adolescence to early adulthood. Universally acclaimed by critics and doing $65 million at the box office against a $1.5 million budget, “Moonlight” earned eight Academy Award nominations, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.

More movies:20 essential Florida films

“Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” by Ray Charles came out in 1962.

5. Listen to ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’ by Ray Charles

From classic rock titans like the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tom Petty, to pop stars such as Gloria Estefan, Pitbull and Ariana Grande, Florida has produced a long list of wildly successful musicians – with one of them, Jimmy Buffett, creating an entire brand based on the Sunshine State. None, though, are as singularly talented as Ray Charles. Of course, lots of folks associate Charles with Georgia because he was born there, in Albany, and recorded the definitive version of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Georgia on My Mind.” But Charles’ mother came from Greenville in Florida’s Madison County, and that’s where she raised her son after giving birth to him on Sept. 30, 1930. Blind by the age of 7, Charles attended the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine in the late ’30s and ’40s and then lived in Tampa while working as the piano player in a band called the Florida Playboys. “Strangest job I had in Florida – and one of the nicest – was with an all-white country-and-western band. All-white, that is except me,” Charles recalled in his bestselling autobiography “Brother Ray.” “They called themselves the Florida Playboys.”

A gifted singer, pianist, composer and arranger, Charles rose to prominence in the 1950s with his pioneering amalgam of blues, jazz, gospel and R&B. In the early 1960s, he reached an even larger audience by revisiting the style of music he played with the Florida Playboys. Released in 1962, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” went gold with sales of more than 500,000 in its first three months and Charles became a superstar. “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vol. 2” came out six months after the first volume and sold just as well. Charles would continue to have country hits through the 1970s and ’80s. “Many people are confused about my decision to do country music,” Charles explains in his autobiography. “They think ABC dictated to me. They think ABC produced these albums for me. Not true. For better or worse, the records were my ideas. Anyone who knows me understands that I really like this music. Not for show, not for shock, but for my own pleasure.”

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Wade Tatangelo, the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment editor, may be reached by email at wade.tatangelo@heraldtribune.com. Support local journalism by subscribing.​​​​​​