I'm walking around in the sweltering Texas heat, slightly intoxicated, and my mouth is on fire. I just chained up some heavy consumption of dozens of different ghost pepper and habanero-based hot sauces, and at this point repeated doses of alcohol and tortilla chips are failing to disperse the burn. I'm pouring sweat and feeling a hell of a burn in my mouth that's extending down into my chest, but I'm still not sated. I need to find something even hotter.
Or perhaps I should back up a bit.
So, during my last weekend in Texas, I managed to hit up The Austin Chronicle's 22nd Annual Hot Sauce Festival. Every August, the Chronicle throws on one of the largest gatherings in the world that is dedicated to making your food really hot. Timing it in the middle of the summer is no coincidence, either; their website openly touts "If you wanna beat the heat... then you gotta eat the heat." And on top of being an excuse for locals to get drunk and dissolve their insides with unhealthy amounts of capsaicin, it's also a major fundraising event for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas: The event is "free" admission to anyone who brings a donation of canned foods (or cash) for the Food Bank.
The main draw to the Festival was the competition, in which restaurants, commercial bottlers and local individuals all submitted their creations for judging and critique. A pavilion hosted the main competition, where attendees were given plates of tortilla chips and set loose to judge the hot sauces for themselves. If that wasn't enough, many commercial bottlers had also set up booths outside, where you could try their entire product lines and purchase what you liked. If you *still* had a craving, a handful of local restaurants had also set up little tent kitchens. The food was mostly taco stands and other standard Mexican fare, but hey, this IS a festival dedicated to the flavor of spicy, after all. Throw in some decent live music, alcohol, and roughly 15 thousand people, and you have a pretty solid party.
This was no ordinary gathering of fans of spicy food, either - This was an event for the true connoisseur. One attendee by the name of Jacob summed up the attitude of the crowd:
Most people fail to realize how truly complex hot sauce can be. Much of what is on the market these days, at least on a large-scale, is just simply "hot." People only know about generic brands like Tabasco or Frank's, but a lot of independent operations and home bottlers are finding new ways to balance hot with taste. It's not just a matter of being hot anymore. Hot can simultaneously also be sweet or spicy or tangy or sour."
And he was pretty spot on, as just about everyone there had a unique product that begged to be tasted over and over and over again. The only unwelcome guest was an oversized booth run by Texan grocery giant H-E-B, who had no business being there with their inferior mass-produced imitation. Sub-par grocery store salsas taste even worse than usual when put up against real bottlers, and H-E-B's offering was no exception.
My personal favorite came from Hobo Jim's, who had their whole lineup of hot sauces up for tasting. The king of their booth, however, was their "Yellow Jacket" sauce, a tangy mustard based hot sauce blended with ghost peppers and habaneros and a variety of other spices. It was selling out pretty fast, but I managed to snag myself a bottle before their stock totally dried up.
SilverLeaf International also deserves a special mention. After hitting a string of brutally hot sauces and salsas, I needed something even stronger to send out the festival with a fitting bang, and their Ghost Pepper Salsa fit that bill perfectly. They also had delicious marinated garlic cloves in a ghost pepper variety, but the salsa was the king of this booth. On top of being incredibly hot, it had a subtle sweet undertone to it that made it impossible to not go overboard with it. My final memory of the festival was stumbling out the gate away from SilverLeaf's booth, racing towards the truck so I could crack another cold beer out of the cooler. Relaxing with said beer in the grass of the neighboring park, it was now time to take in the variety of flavors I had experienced, and also to ponder the imminent doom of my lower digestive tract.
You can find more information on the festival, as well as archives for past years, on the Austin Chronicle's web site.