Year in Review

If You Missed Any of These 10 Incredible Stories From 2023, You Should Fix That ASAP

In a year full of terrific Sarasota Magazine stories, these 10 stood out.

By Cooper Levey-Baker December 26, 2023

Sarasota Magazine published hundreds of stories in 2023, and, if you'll allow me to brag for a moment, I think our batting average is pretty high. As we explore and celebrate Sarasota and encourage our readers to do the same, we're constantly meeting fascinating people, digging deep into topics both weighty and frivolous, and trying always to do it with style and wit. Looking back at the year, picking my 10 favorite stories was both easy and difficult—easy to find stories I'm particularly proud of, difficult to winnow that down to just 10. If you missed one, now's your chance to get caught up. Stick with us in 2024. There's more where this came from.

I Grew up Participating in a Hell House. It Was Weird.

Our associate editor Lauren Jackson's main beat is food and restaurants, and I'd encourage you to consult her definitive list of Sarasota's 40 best restaurants before making your next dinner reservation. But one of my favorite stories from her this year had nothing to do with dining. Shortly before Halloween, she penned a personal essay about what it was like to volunteer in an evangelical Christian Hell House while she was growing up. (If you're not familiar, a Hell House is like a haunted house, but with a religious edge; the idea is to scare misbehaving kids with the threat of being tortured by Satan for eternity.) The result: a funny, moving and brave remembrance.

Image: Laura Mares

Ketamine and Other Psychedelics Are Changing Mental Health Care

Speaking of brave, in January, our digital editor Megan McDonald reached down deep to depict her husband Rob's treatment-resistant depression and explain how ketamine, a psychedelic drug, has helped alleviate his symptoms. The story doubles as both searing personal memoir and top-notch scientific journalism about a once-controversial medicine that is having a positive impact on people's wellbeing all around the United States.

Can a Millennial Love Pickleball?

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America, but its rise hasn't come without discord. People who live near courts complain about the constant pops of paddles hitting balls, while tennis fanatics bemoan the loss of court space. In a funny, enlightening story, our contributing editor Isaac Eger puts his ego on the line to see if he can cut it in the local pickleball scene, while also exploring the broader phenomenon of the sport's surging popularity.

The Aikido Master of Myakka

Did you know that a world-renowned aikido master lives in Myakka and played a major role in bringing the martial art from Japan to the United States? I certainly didn't, until contributing editor Bethany Ritz wrote this thoughtful, contemplative profile of Mitsugi Saotome, an 86-year-old aikido master who moved from Japan to Sarasota in 1975 to lead a local dojo. Sarasota is home to so many people with fascinating backstories; add Saotome to that list.

In 1990, Sarasota Waged War on Thongs, Leading to Outrage, Protests and National Media Attention

There was a time before I heard the local 1990 rap protest song "Don't Ban the T-Back" and a time after. My life was split in two. Associate editor Kim Doleatto dug up the track as part of her reporting in this fun, fascinating story that looks back at a decades-old controversy over what type of bathing suit people were allowed to wear on Sarasota's public beaches—a contentious topic that generated headlines around the world and even led to city officials appearing on The Phil Donahue Show.

A Love Letter to Pho Cali

I've eaten at downtown Sarasota's Vietnamese institution Pho Cali countless times, and had even included the restaurant in numerous listings of my favorite restaurants published over the years, but I never knew anything about the restaurant's chef, Kim La, until Isaac Eger began hanging out with her and her husband, Harrison, for this illuminating profile. If you haven't eaten at Pho Cali before, this story should convince you to go soon. If you've eaten there a million times, it will remind you to go back one more time.

The Heist That Rocked Sarasota’s Art World

The mysterious 1969 theft of 15 religious paintings created and displayed by Sarasota artist Ben Stahl baffled local police officers and has never been solved. In his thoughtful feature on the case, contributing editor Robert Plunket combines personal remembrances of Stahl with an explanation of how the heist happened and why few leads ever turned up. And, in doing so, Plunket pays tribute to the vanished world of Sarasota's famed artist colony.

The 10 Best Publixes in the Sarasota Area, Ranked

Sometimes, a story seems so obvious in retrospect that you slap yourself on the forehead for not thinking of it sooner. Such is the case with this inarguable ranking of the region's best Publix grocery stores, which required Lauren Jackson to cruise the aisles of several stores to weigh their merits, and sent our photo team all around the region to snap guerilla-style pics of our top selections. Your favorite Publix may not be on this list, and that's OK. Just know that you're wrong.

Conversation With Syd

I was over the moon to have the opportunity to republish a story with a byline by one Kurt Vonnegut Jr. this year. I came across the story in our archives, a treasure trove of great old issues that reads like an unofficial history of our city. In 1986, Vonnegut, the legendary author of Slaughterhouse-Five, was invited to speak at New College of Florida, and our then-editor Pam Daniel convinced him to write a story for the magazine. What came out of that was a conversation between Vonnegut and his good friend, Sarasota painter Syd Solomon, touching on art, creativity and what Solomon called "the worms of discontent."

A Journey Through Old Florida With the State’s Last Cowboys

With each passing year, Florida loses more and more of its natural beauty to encroaching development, changing the lives of people who pride themselves on living off the land. A year ego, Isaac Eger participated in the Great Florida Cattle Drive, a seven-day horseback trip intended to recreate the experience of Florida Crackers driving cattle across the state. In the process, he met aging cowboys, historical reenactors and young ranchers struggling with the conflict between maintaining tradition and accepting change, and he penned this lyrical ode to a Florida that may be disappearing for good.

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