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Though change can be difficult — specifically for those who have grown up in South Walton and seen widespread and swift development, as well as constantly changing county codes over the last couple of decades — it must be embraced when it is for the greater good. And that is exactly what took place on the weekend of Feb. 27, 2015, when local resident and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse hosted the first Taste of the Race event for the 13th annual Seaside Half Marathon & 5K Run.

The inaugural Seaside Neighborhood School 5K took place back in 2003 with just a few hundred participants. My two children were attending by 2004 and 2005 (a year apart), so I volunteered to help cook the carb-laden pasta dinner for the runners participating the night prior, and handed out water along the course with other parents and children not running the day of the race, while my husband was the physician on hand in case of an emergency. It was a simpler time. We did not know it then, and we hold tight to those memories now. Fast-forward 12 years, and as our community has rapidly expanded, along with the Southern food movement, so has our school system, the excitement surrounding 30A and the race.

This year was exceptional, as Emeril offered to host the V.I.P. reception and Taste of the Race, which brought more than 10,000 people from across the country to visit South Walton, eat our coveted Gulf Coast cuisine, and run for the benefit of education. The price point was accessible. And both tasting events, as well as the USATF certified race itself, sold out in record pace. More than 100 sponsors stepped up to donate time, money, auction items and talent to the festivities, including the longtime presenting race sponsor, Vera Bradley and sponsors of Taste of the Race — Emeril’s Florida, Emeril’s and South Walton.

Though I often attend events nationally of similar nature, I was fortunate to also be invited as media for this jam-packed three-day weekend filled with opportunities to connect with like-minded people, share stories, fellowship and celebrate one of the most bountiful and beautiful food regions in the country — the Emerald Coast and Seaside.

The V.I.P. reception was especially enjoyable, as it took place in one of the schoolhouses. I spoke with my children’s former teachers, past and current board members and some of the middle school students passing the vast array of trays holding the splendidly divine sampling of chef-made heavy hors d’oeuvres. I was happy to see the students’ interest peaked in the food and event scene, to see the school garden thriving and to know that in the last few years, Emeril has played a significant role in many of their lives. I, along with others, nibbled and sipped on fine wine, specialty craft bourbon cocktails, and locally-brewed Grayton Beer, with Emeril just in reach for photo opportunities if the urge hit — which it did for most.

The tent in the green space below was filled with the musical sounds by the band Trick Pony, along with sweet, savory and smoke induced foods, their smells billowing throughout the night air, and created by regional and local chefs for all to taste and experience. Trenasse and Emeril’s from New Orleans, and South Walton’s Seagar’s, Great Southern Cafe, Stinky’s, Bud & Alley’s, Edward’s, Havana Beach, 723 Whiskey Bravo and George’s were just a few of the spectacular restaurants in attendance, most reliant on local farmers, fishermen and artisans for product, and paying homage to our Panhandle cuisine through their culinary preparations.
It truly was a rewarding night for those in attendance, and teetered on sheer perfection.

For more information about how to participate in events surrounding Seaside Neighborhood School Half Marathon & 5K, how to volunteer, donate to the school, or how to become a sponsor, send an email to info@seasidehalfmarathon.com, or visit SeasideHalfMarathon.com. Each runner in both races receives a Vera Bradley tote bag and race T-shirt, and can celebrate after the race with music, Jim ‘N Nick’s barbecue and cold beverages. All proceeds from Taste of the Race and the Half Marathon & 5K Run benefit Seaside Neighborhood School.

Susan Benton is a culinary enthusiast and the owner of 30AEATS.com. She is currently penning a cookbook to be released in the fall of 2015.

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