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John Wiedenheft III, of the Tapped Apple, serves apple wine to Stephanie Toomey, of North Kingstown at "The Taste of Southern Rhode Island" on Sept. 23 at Clark Farms in Matunuck.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — This taste satisfied many tastes as businesses and local residents turned out for the annual food and beverage fest called the Taste of Southern Rhode Island.

Held at Clarke Farms along Route 1, the event featured more than 30 businesses that brought food, wine, beer and other culinary delights for the more than 500 people who drifted in and out of the big-top white tent.

“It is a time for the community to come together. It’s exciting to see our peers and friends from other restaurants and the customers who come to ours,” said Tonia Durfee, wife of Kevin Durfee who owns George’s of Galilee in Point Judith.

The annual event – canceled last year because of COVID-19 restrictions – is sponsored by the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. Despite some lingering concerns about packed crowds, this event was held under an open-air tent on a bright sunny and mildly breezy day last Thursday.

This Taste of Southern Rhode Island – the ninth annual one – is the autumn forget-me-not recipe local restaurants and sellers of spirits to show to area residents in their renewed love after a summer fling with temporary tourists.

Welcome Back Locals

Often residents will stay away from favorite eating places in the summer because the businesses are crowded. In the late fall and winter, owners come to depend on them again to help sustain profit margins to keep businesses operating.

About 31 restaurants, distilleries and breweries set out their food in a big square under the large white tent last for the fall reunion of area residents and their local purveyors of food and drink. Many came despite a continuing problem with an industry-wide shortage of help.

“This is an awesome event and we’re here even if we’re so short-staffed,” added Kevin Durfee, noting the help shortage problem many area businesses are confronting. His restaurant served up some pan-seared fluke with pesto aioli and his restaurant’s own specially-crafted IPA beer.

At the other end of the tent Brian Sweenor and sister, Lisa Dunham, came with a number of varieties from their candy shop, Sweener’s Chocolates in Wakefield. Included were coconut fudge balls, white chocolate almond bark and nonpareils, which means having “no equal,” the chocolate covered in sugar sprinkles.

“It is good to be back,” said Sweenor, adding, “We wouldn’t miss it.”

Putting on display a number of intricate desserts, like chocolate cakes with white cream toppings, and cheese cake with cherries on top with syrup dripping down the sides, was Chef Mark Bennison from the Exeter Jobs Academy. His culinary students make all the goodies.

“For us, it’s about giving back. We come here because these restaurants are the ones who give out culinary students jobs and a chance to develop their skills,” he said.

Spirits and Shellfish

Across the tent Bert DeSalvo of Sweeney’s Wine and Spirits in Wakefield offered tastes of red and white wine varieties from the Murphy Goode line.

Shucking oysters at about 12 a minute was Connor Mulligan of the Matunuck Oyster Bar. His line was long. He emptied another bag of them on a bed of ice as people filed by, grabbing one or two of the shellfish at a time.

“I’ll go through about a 1,000 or more before the end of the night,” said Mulligan, who is also a bartender at the restaurant and was recruited to help out with the event.

Attending the event was Jesse Perry of Charlestown with his girlfriend. He had some pulled-pork in a tortilla roll. “We got some free tickets so we came. It’s great,” he said. His girlfriend, just smiled, and added, “I’m going to try a little bit of everything.”

Another person checking out the Taste of Southern Rhode Island was Paul Simmons of Wakefield.

“It’s a great social atmosphere, especially after COVID that kept us apart for so long,” he said. He just finished drinking some pumpkin ale beer. “I loved it. It’s refreshing and it gets me ready for Oktoberfest,” he said with a laugh.

Wandering among the crowds and just taking in the atmosphere were Chris and Jenna Visinho of Warwick and Matunuck. It was their “date night” for the week while some relatives watched their four-year-old child.

“Oh my God, I just love it,” said Jenna. “They have a great range of vendors and I’m so happy they were able to do it again.”

Those sentiments echoed the thoughts of Joe Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island chamber.

“It’s good to see so many people and vendors here. It’s the story of this business community – they are survivors. That they are out here tonight — rather than in their kitchens because of the shortage of help — shows they are strong people,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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