For the eighteenth year, Austin celebrated peppers and all their tongue-burning glory yesterday at the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival 2008. This year, over 600 hot sauces (compared to last year's roughly 350) arrived in Ziploc bags, recycled jam jars, and Tupperware buckets, vying for hot sauce royalty. As one of the judges at the event, I volunteered my health to dunk countless tortilla chips into unknown spicy potions.
You Call that a Hot Sauce?
Judges were shipped off to a private room at Serrano's Tex-Mex restaurant across the street from Waterloo Park, the site of the event. Seated around a long table, we passed around hot sauces, designating a "Yes" or "No" to each. Once a contender earned three Yes's, it advanced to the second round, and if three No's—instant demotion to the loser's table. Even if other judges didn't get a taste, three No's meant see ya.
Categories were divided by: red, green, and special variety. In the last group, anything went. Mango, mole, peach, shrimp, curry, beets—really, anything. Excellence here goes to the best for what it is, purist hot sauce philosophies aside. The shrimp one was more of a ceviche, yes, but it could be a hot sauce wannabe here.
"Be careful, this is when people start passing out," Houston Press food critic and one of the festival's founders Robb Walsh warned as he distributed scoops of vanilla ice cream, hoping the creamy dairy would work its tongue-calming magic. That's because Habanero-based sauces could creep into this "special variety" round since the deadly orange peppers don't fit into the red or green categories.
Seated Next to Senior Judges
When I walked in, Walsh pulled me aside. "I'm seating you next to the real serious eaters." And sure enough, my end of the table was dominated by judge alums wearing festival tees from the '90s. With that kind of seniority, they could, and did, scoff at many. "Ick, that tastes like chlorine!" "Smells like fish food." "That's not just a No, that's like eight No's, get it outta here."
Sensing my less practiced palate, a few of them turned to me and joked: "Look at her face! It's turning a salsa verde color! You doin' okay, Erin?" Feeling weird tingling sensations in my feet, I knew my body was mad at me. But I just giggled, as if the habenero droplet that just murdered thousands of taste buds was no big deal.
My seat neighbor and longtime judge Carlos Conteras starting telling hot sauce judge horror stories: "The first few years we drank way too much. We were hurting for days. I'll never forget one habanero sauce that knocked me out, and I had to stop tasting for a solid twenty minutes."
'Hey, This Tastes Horrible, Try It!'
There was a lot of that going around. "Tastes like shoe polish. Go on, try it!"
Part of you wants to. So you do. But as Conteras taught me, "after years of doing this, you learn to trust the others that go before you."
Keys to Hot Sauce Greatness
The right burn-to-flavor balance. The right texture. Nothing too sweet. Easy on the cumin and cilantro.
No frilly jars. This is a hot sauce contest, not a hot sauce jar contest.
The right visual experience. One mysterious yellow entry appeared in the red category, and not by mistake. Red peppers were involved, but something didn't feel right here. Judges belittled the freak sauce for a good few minutes.
The Celebrity Taste Buds
When hot sauces passed the preliminary round, they went to eight judges who had a formal scoring system with numbers, not just Yes's and No's.
Paula Disbrowe (cookbook author and food writer), Bob Blumer (host of Food Network show Glutton for Punishment), Alan Lazarus (chef-owner, Vespaio), Tyson Cole (founding chef, Uchi), David Garrido (chef, cookbook author), Victor Leal (chef-owner, Leal's Mexican foods), and Jack Gilmore (founding chef, Z'Tejas).
First Place Winners, By Category
Individual Homemade Entries
Red Sauce: Thomas Fierst
Green Sauce: Marty Cardeiras
Special Variety: Jill Lewis
What's for Dinner Later?
Austin Chronicle food writer and longtime judge Claudia Alarcón recommended white rice and chicken broth. I actually had some tasty steak prepared by my uncle, and am still breathing, and functioning, pretty normally.