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

The Joy-Filled Farmhouse

In The Home

Photography by Oak and Heirloom

With their new home, this family of four has created a happy place that they love to share with others virtually and in real life.

There is no shortage of online inspiration for anyone who is building or decorating a house. However, a visit to @thejoyfilledfarmhouse, the Instagram page of Tara Matthews, will offer plenty of ideas to homeowners.

Tara started the account in October 2019 when she and her husband, Aaron, were building the west Augusta home they share with their children, 5-year-old Peyton and 2-year-old Aly Kate, to document the construction process.

“I like to help other people if they have questions about building,” says Tara, a former teacher and current stay-at-home mom. “I was in that same boat, and I didn’t know who to ask.”

Recently, their farmhouse-style home, where they have lived since October 2020, was featured on when the site’s founder contacted Tara after seeing her Instagram account. The online community features interior design ideas submitted by interior designers, builders, photographers and homeowners.

Before their house was featured on, Tara had about 5,000 followers on Instagram. Now, however, the number has climbed to about 20,000 followers.

“I’m shocked that that many people are interested,” she says.

Yet it’s really no surprise that their house has generated such a following. After all, the name of her Instagram page itself – along with her tips and photos – captures the joy and TLC that Tara has poured into their home.

“Joy is my favorite word. I got it from my mom. That’s her favorite word, and she is exactly that,” says Tara.

Aaron encouraged her to start the Instagram account, and the hobby quickly turned into an outreach to others and a vehicle for followers to “shop her home” through the app.

“We really felt like we were supposed to share our home,” Tara says. “I really want people to come here and feel welcome.”

While the self-described introvert might feel more comfortable sharing virtually than in person, Aaron loves to entertain. She is happy to oblige, she says, because “I love my husband a lot.”

The Heart of the Home

Visitors to the modern farmhouse, which has board and batten siding and Hardie board on the exterior, are greeted by a doormat that says, “Come on in & cozy up.” A black and cream plaid rug beneath the doormat adds a layered look of charm and personality to the front porch, and black gutters accent the white farmhouse.

A trio of hanging ferns lines the porch, and the ubiquitous red and black Georgia flag flies proudly from one of the 8-inch cedar columns. “We always have our Georgia flag out, no matter the season,” says Tara.

The front porch also features a gable roof, a tongue-and-groove pine ceiling, a brick skirt and firwood double doors with a natural stain.

“My husband likes a lot of craftsmanship,” Tara says.

Inside, Tara and Aaron wanted an open concept so they can mix and mingle with their company. To enhance the open feel of the home, all of the ceilings are 10 feet high, except for the living room’s cathedral ceiling that reaches to 17 feet at its highest point. Most of the first story has luxury vinyl plank flooring, which is durable, scratch-resistant and easy to clean.

Tara calls the kitchen the heart of the home, and she wanted a space that could feed and seat a crowd.

“I wanted a white kitchen with lots of storage, and I wanted to make it functional,” says Tara.

Other kitchen must-haves included floor-to-ceiling cabinets for storage, a walk-in pantry, a large farmhouse sink, a large island, quartz countertops, lots of cabinet drawers, a gas stove and double ovens. An appliance garage for the coffeemaker is tucked in a corner.

“I like for everything to have a place,” Tara says. “No clutter.”

The island is painted black to contrast with the white walls and the glossy white picket tile backsplash. A pair of pendant lights hangs above the island, and leather chairs provide seating.

“They’re so easy with kids,” says Tara. “I can just wipe them off.”

A four-pane glass and wood door leads to the walk-in pantry, which includes butcher block countertops, a mini-fridge for overflow and lots of cubbies and drawer space.

“This is where I hide all the snacks,” says Tara.

Situated just off of the kitchen, the dining room features a pine farmhouse table with upholstered chairs on each end and Windsor chairs along the sides. The room is accented with a rectangular pendant light and an area rug. The sideboard is actually a TV stand with cane-front cabinet doors.

Black & White

Tara and Aaron extended the living room by two feet to have plenty of space to entertain, and they continued the black and white theme into the living room.

The white walls have a matte finish, while the trim has a satin finish. Accents include a 10-light matte black chandelier and matte black swing-arm sconces above open cedar shelves.

Other wood accents, which bring warmth to the large open space, include a cedar beam across the ceiling and a cedar mantel above the brick gas fireplace. Furnishings include a white sectional couch with an ottoman and a pair of tan leather recliners.

Double French doors from the living room open onto the screened-in porch – a favorite hangout for their dachshund, Tucker. “We screened in the porch so we can use it all year round,” says Tara.

The space includes a pine tongue-and-groove ceiling; board and batten walls; concrete floor; another brick gas fireplace, which they added to the house plans; space heaters; a TV and windows trimmed in black.

“The black exterior windows pop off of the white,” Tara says.

She loves to sit on the custom-made bed swing with her children, and Aaron strung Edison lights around the ceiling line to make the porch feel cozier. Doors also connect the porch with the master bedroom, and the couple likes to take full advantage of them.

“We can have a date night and watch a movie while the kids are sleeping,” Tara says.

The master bedroom features board and batten walls and a pine tongue-and-groove inset ceiling. Accents include an area rug and an upholstered bench at the foot of the bed.

A barn door leads from the master bedroom to the adjoining bath, which has quartz countertops, a knee-space makeup vanity, double sinks, wall-mounted gold faucets, ceramic matte tile flooring with a marble look and lots of cabinet space for storage. The walk-in shower features textured ceramic subway tile and basketweave tile flooring.

Shiplap wainscoting surrounds the pedestal soaking tub. A bamboo tub caddy reaches across the tub, and a chandelier hangs above it.

“This is where I relax and unwind,” says Tara.

Form & Function

While the master bath is a sanctuary for R&R, the bath that the children share is designed for function. Their bath features shiplap walls, large subway tiles in the shower, rectangular mirrors with rounded edges and a linen closet with a pocket door. However, one of Tara’s favorite features in the space is the built-in, pullout step stools beneath the sinks.

“They can pull the steps out themselves,” says Tara. “I saw them on Pinterest, but I didn’t know anyone who had them.”

The powder room features a wall-mounted faucet in black matte and a chunky wood vanity. The half-bath also includes brick flooring in a herringbone pattern, which stretches into the mudroom and laundry room.

A pocket door leads to the laundry room, which includes a shiplap backsplash, a soaking sink and a counter to fold clothes. Two large seagrass tote baskets are tucked beneath the counter, and the cabinets are painted soothing Sea Salt by Sherwin Williams.

“I wanted a nice, calming color in the laundry room,” says Tara. “I wanted to do something different instead of black and white, like the rest of the house.”

Another pocket door leads from the laundry room to the master closet, which is accented with built-ins and a transom window.

Because they rent out their home for the Masters Tournament, Tara and Aaron included other features to accommodate their guests as well. They have a heated pool on their one-acre property, and they added another bedroom and bath on the second story.

Relatability & Inspiration

It’s not just the big-ticket items that garner attention on Tara’s Instagram page, however. Her décor stands out as well. Tara collaborates on Instagram with a handful of small businesses such as Southern Willow Market, a local gift shop in Martinez; Little White Shed & Co., a candle company in New Jersey that is run by a mother and her two daughters; and Sand Cloud, a California-based towel company started by three friends who were trying to create the perfect beach towel.

“I only do so many collaborations at a time,” Tara says. “I try to stick to two or three at a time.”

However, @thejoyfilledfarmhouse is a source of strength and comfort for Tara as well.

After she lost a baby due to a rare condition when she was nine weeks pregnant in November 2020, she stopped posting on Instagram for about three months. Her husband encouraged her to get back into it because he knew how much she had enjoyed it, and it helped her begin the healing process to regain the joy in her life.

She met other women online who had gone through similar circumstances, and she received lots of support from her followers when she posted her story on the baby’s due date.

Tara knows life is full of unexpected twists and turns (“Coffee and Jesus help,” she says.), but she tries to post something on Instagram every day – even when the house doesn’t look perfect.

“There are so many accounts that have inspired me,” she says. “I want to relate to people.”

By Betsy Gilliland

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