Monthly Archives: January 2022

Best in Nation


Columbia County Convention & Visitors Bureau recently was awarded first place from the U.S. Travel Association for the best integrated marketing and messaging campaign in the nation among destination marketing organizations for its Serene18 Paddle Trail campaign. More than 400 nominations were received.

The CVB worked with Kruhu and Cineloco to develop the humorous promotional videos starring Redford and Benny as two scouts that showcase the fun that kayakers and canoers can have on area waterways.

The videos have been viewed nearly a quarter of a million times, reaching more than 4 million people. As a result, hundreds of people have visited Columbia County to paddle the trails.

Thai Coconut Shrimp Soup

  • 2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
  • 6 baby bok choy, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 5 ounces white button mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons ginger, minced or grated
  • 2 tablespoons red curry paste
  • 4 cups chicken or fish stock
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1 (14-ounce) can regular coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 pound large shrimp, deveined and peeled
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1/4 cup green onions, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 big handfuls bean sprouts

Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add bok choy and red bell pepper; sauté about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms; sauté another 3 minutes. Add garlic and ginger; sauté just until fragrant. Stir in red curry paste. Stir in chicken stock, soy sauce, fish sauce, coconut milk, brown sugar and black pepper; bring to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook just until they turn pink, about 3-4 minutes (do not overcook or they will be rubbery). Remove from heat and stir in lime juice, green onions, basil and bean sprouts. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

In the Mix


Photography by Jordin Althaus/Peacock

A Columbia County couple showcases their talents on a reality TV baking show competition.

Grovetown resident Sharon Hutko loves being in the kitchen – and she can take the heat. In her spare time (she also works fulltime in human resources at SRP Federal Credit Union), she has a catering business and owns the local Jimmy John’s restaurants with her husband, Mike.

It’s her specialty cakes, however, that really attract attention from near and far.

During Masters Week last year, a casting producer for “Baking It,” a reality TV competition that launched in December and is streaming on Peacock TV, reached out to Sharon after seeing her cakes on her Instagram page, @sharonhutkocakes. The producer invited her to audition for the show, and Sharon was all in.

The six-episode series features eight teams of two bakers that vie to win a $50,000 cash prize and the title of “Best in Dough.” As part of the application process, Sharon and a partner submitted photos and videos. They met individually with the show’s creator and producers on Zoom. They also had to complete and document baking challenges that were sent to them.

At the last minute, however, Sharon’s baking partner had to withdraw because of covid protocols. So she turned to her life partner to join her.

“Mike came on board five days before we left. He had to go through a background check. We didn’t know he would be allowed to go until the night before we flew out,” says Sharon. “It was a whirlwind for him.”

They filmed the show, a spinoff of the crafting competition “Making It,” in Los Angeles for two weeks in August. While Sharon ended up with an unexpected partner, all of the contestants got a surprise when they met the hosts of the show for the first time. In fact, they had no idea who they were going to be until the hosts – Maya Rudolph and Andy Samberg – walked onto the set.

“It was so exciting,” Sharon says. “I have been a fan of both of them since their Saturday Night Live days.”

Southern Pride

In each episode, the baking teams – which consisted of spouses, siblings, twins, best friends and a father and son duo – had to complete various challenges. Some of them were small challenges; others were “big ol’ bakes.”

The shorter challenges took about an hour to 90 minutes to complete. The teams had 2 1/2 to 3 hours to finish the longer challenges.

“Our call time was at 6 a.m., and we would work until midnight. But if a challenge was three hours, it was filmed for three hours,” says Sharon. “I thought there was no way we could make a three-tiered cake in three hours, but we sure did.”

During those long hours, however, they also filmed other portions of each episode such as the reveals and the judging. In addition, the shows are sprinkled with highlights of the delicious bond between Rudolph and Samberg, who are prone to cracking jokes or bursting into song at any moment.

As an added ingredient, four opinionated grandmothers – all accomplished bakers themselves –judged the competition.

“When they say ‘opinionated grannies,’ that was 100 percent the case,” says Sharon. “If they didn’t like something, they would tell us why. But they also were positive and encouraging.”

Sharon and Mike were honored that they were the only team to represent the South, so they made sure to add a dollop of Southern pride goodness to all of their recipes.

“They would give us a category, and they left it open as to what we would submit,” says Sharon. “I wanted the things that we made to represent the South. We really just wanted to make the South proud.”

For instance, in the first episode, the Hutkos made pecan tassies with bourbon and bacon. In another show, the contestants were combined into two super groups – the Naughty team and Nice team – of six bakers, and they prepared a biscuit and a protein.

The Hutkos’ team, the Naughty team, won that competition with its cracked black pepper and cream cheese biscuits, which was Sharon’s recipe, and lamb chop lollipops with sweet peach sauce.

“It was a feel-good, not a cutthroat, competition,” says Sharon. “They told us to think of it as summer camp. The whole atmosphere was so positive and encouraging and such a good experience.”

Icing on the Cake

The Hutkos bake in three episodes, but they have watched all of them. Sometimes, though, the experience still seems like the stuff of make believe. One night when they were about to stream an episode of “Yellowstone” on Peacock, they got a jolt when they saw a clip of themselves for a “Baking It” program.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Sharon says. “Mike has been recognized a couple of times since the show.”

She also says he was the perfect culinary colleague for her. “I could not have asked for a better partner,” she says. “He was great in the challenges. He knew what I needed for the competition and outside of the show.”

However, Sharon says the best part of “Baking It” was building new relationships, particularly with the other contestants.

“The teams got along so well,” she says. “We still communicate with each other every day. We have a big group chat. We have gone from talking about the show to sharing our daily lives with each other.”

Sharon definitely is open to blending another baking show into her life one day.

“It was such a great experience. Everybody who was involved with the show was truly, truly so kind. I don’t know if that’s the norm,” she says. “I loved it so much. I would love to something like this again.”

Sharon also can be found at or

By Sarah James

Gentle Giants


Photos courtesy of Florida State Parks, Blue Springs State Park and

Three upcoming festivals offer opportunities to see and celebrate Florida’s docile, lovable manatees.

If it’s winter in Florida, then the snowbird population is flocking to the Sunshine State. And some of the “snowbirds” have been arriving by flippers rather than wings – as in swimming their way there.

These water-residing “snowbirds” are better known as manatees, which may travel as far north as Virginia or Rhode Island and as far west as Texas during the summer. When they return to the warm waters of Florida in the winter, however, three communities hold fun-filled festivals to welcome them back to the state’s natural warm-water springs or power plant discharge canals.

In Crystal River, the Florida Manatee Festival is scheduled for January 15-16. The Blue Spring Manatee Festival in Orange City is set for January 22-23. On February 5, West Palm Beach will hold ManateeFest 2022.

Typically, manatees concentrate primarily in Florida from November to March, preferring waters that are 3 to 7 feet deep.

The Florida manatee, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, is found throughout the state’s waterways such as rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas, particularly where sea grass beds and other aquatic plants grow.

Even though they are related closely to elephants, these herbivores sometimes are called sea cows because, like landlubber cows, they consume a plant-eating diet. They seek safe, protected areas, and the entire state of Florida has been designated as a manatee sanctuary.

Florida Manatee Festival, Crystal River

Crystal River, about 90 minutes north of Tampa, is one of the few places in the world where people still can swim with manatees. Crystal River wraps around Kings Bay, where more than 70 springs attract hundreds of manatees during cool weather.

This year the 35th annual Florida Manatee Festival will be held 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, January 15 and 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sunday, January 16 in downtown Crystal River. Admission is $5 for adults and free for children ages 12 and under. Free parking and shuttle service to the festival will be available at Crystal River Mall, 1801 U.S. 19.

More than 20,000 people visit the festival each year to honor the community’s most famous winter residents with food, entertainment, music and fun.

The festival will offer two food courts, two beer and wine gardens, live music on four stages, a fine art walk, craft vendors and a children’s zone. Visitors also can check out the downtown shops and eateries within and around the festivities.

Back by popular demand, Heritage House Hippie Village is returning with Bohemian crafts, vendors, food and music reminiscent of the ’60s and ’70s.

Of course, the manatees are the star attraction, and festival-goers can take a manatee boat tour or a guided kayak tour.

Tickets for the boat tours are available for purchase at the dock area in Kings Bay Park at the end of NW Third Street. The cost is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12 and free for ages 5 and under.

The first tour on Saturday is at 9:30 a.m., and the last tour starts at 4:30 p.m. On Sunday, the first tour goes out at 9:30 a.m., and the final tour launches at 3:30 p.m. Each tour lasts 25-30 minutes, and the captain determines the route based on other boat traffic.

Guided kayak tours are the newest addition to the festival. These tours, which offer an interactive experience of Kings Bay, can be booked in advance.

Blue Spring Manatee Festival, Orange City

The 35th annual Blue Spring Manatee Festival in Orange City, about 40 minutes northeast of Orlando, will take place 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, January 22 and Sunday, January 23.

Festival activities will be held at Valentine Park, on West French Avenue off of Highway 17-92, and free shuttles buses to Blue Spring State Park for manatee viewing will be available. Overlooks and boardwalks in the park provide great spots for observing the manatees.

Admission is $8 for adults, $2 for ages 4-10 and free for children age 3 and under. Admission for dogs (apparently, the most prized members of the family) is $10.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the Friends of Blue State Park, scholarships and other Orange City organizations.

The festival is more than manatees, however. Activities also will include food vendors, 100-plus arts and crafts booths, face painting, music, dancing, rides, shows, walk-on-water balls, sand sculpting, environmental conservation displays and children’s fingerprinting.

Adventurous or competitive types can test their skills at festival games such as rock wall climbing, bungee jumping and the balloon man shooting gallery.

On Saturday, the entertainment will feature the world-famous Disconnected K9’s Frisbee Show at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Solo artist Karegan Wodz will perform from noon until 1 p.m., and the live band, Caerbanog, will take the stage from 1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

The Disconnected K9’s Frisbee Show will return for more tricks and treats on Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Other entertainment will include the Jeff Howell Band from “Monsters in the Morning” 104.1 Real Radio, performing from 12:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

You also can watch manatees at Blue Spring in real time via above-water and underwater webcams at

ManateeFest 2022, West Palm Beach

Farther south on Florida’s east coast, ManateeFest 2022 in West Palm Beach will celebrate Manatee Lagoon’s sixth anniversary 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday, February 5. Manatee Lagoon is a free Palm Beach County educational attraction with a dedicated area for viewing manatees up close.

The waterfront center features hands-on exhibits for visitors to learn all about manatees and the natural wonders of the surrounding Lake Worth Lagoon. On cold winter days, the facility’s observation deck is the ideal spot to view manatees basking in the warm-water outflows from Florida Power & Light Company’s adjacent Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center.

The free annual event celebrates all things manatee with hands-on educational activities including local and state environmental exhibitors, photo opportunities with Lagoon mascot Mia the Manatee, an interactive selfie station, marine life face painting, arts and crafts vendors, a children’s fun zone, live music and food vendors.

Visitors also can test their recycling skills in the Recycling Relay Race. In addition, the ManateeFest mobile event app will provide access to all of the festivities as well as a scavenger hunt with Mia the Manatee and Sunny the Solar Tree.

If you can’t make it to West Palm Beach for ManateeFest, you can join the activities virtually. A virtual storefront will feature the same environmental and marine-themed vendors and exhibitors as the in-person event and can be accessed from 8 a.m. Saturday, February 5 through midnight Sunday, February 6.

A virtual photo booth, where people can snap a free photo and customize it with backgrounds and stickers, also will be available. Anyone who shares their photo on social media should tag it @ManateeLagoon. Virtual manatee trivia games will be featured during festival hours as well, and the first people to receive the highest scores will win a prize.

If You Go:

Florida Manatee Festival
January 15-16
Crystal River, Florida

Blue Spring Manatee Festival
January 22-23
Orange City, Florida

ManateeFest 2022
February 5
West Palm Beach, Florida

By Morgan Davis