August 24th was the 18th annual celebration of The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Contest here in Austin, Texas. The event featured many vendors who promoted their sauces along with individuals vying for glory in the hot sauce world. The organizers raise money and collect food for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. Attendance is free, but patrons are asked to bring non- perishable donations for the bank. It is supposedly the largest Contest and Festival of its kind and I have entered in fourteen of the contests since the beginning eighteen years ago! I arrived early with three entries, one for each category; Red, Green and Special category. I was joined by Ted Fick-C and Tom Spradling-R and as we told stories about past events & swapped "tastes" I knew I was in trouble right away because my green entry was not near Tom's (he even grows his own peppers)! When I tried Ted's I was amazed, It was so complex and he smokes/roasts his veggies for SEVENTEEN hours. It was a red entry but I think it would have dominated in the special category commercial. And we were the first of 600 entries!
We like it Hot and Spicy in Texas and it's been that way for years. Chili peppers and the thousands of variations of salsas, sauces and pico-de-gallos testify to the unending search for the best combination to dip your tortilla chip (or literally anything else you might choose). Although I like hot & spicy I still maintain that "if it's too painful, it ain't good".
So where do you draw a line? For J.P. Hayes, founder of Sargent Pepper's, an Austin sauce-making company, it's off the charts. J.P. has set up a booth at the festival every year since it started! We both realized that we were probably the only people attending wearing the original T-shirt from the event's first year. The first two years, the festival was billed as a contest between Austin and San Antonio but Austin ran away with the event both times and from then on it was just "The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Contest. Austin became the mecca for individuals, restaurants and commercial bottlers from all over the state seeking fame and salsa fortune! Several thousand people attended and lined up for free samples from many of the restaurants and commercial bottlers as well as a huge tent displaying some of the hundreds of individual entries.
The Food Network was also on hand to record the show and interview the restaurants, Commercial bottlers and each of the winners who took part! The entries are evaluated by a panel of celebrity judges who are given a group of the final samples after the bulk are tasted by a preliminary group of "tasters" (a job NOT suited for the faint hearted). I already mentioned that I have entered this event many times and I need to say I have only received an honorable mention in the special category for a fresh Peach/Red pepper salsa my daughter and I entered in 2007. The rivalry is as fierce as it is overwhelmingly large! This year we entered the individual category with a new version of the salsa we entered last year and I also made a red and green version. I always like the festivities and attend for the fun as well as the possibility of actually placing but my daughter decided to stay home and avoid the crowds and heat! Later, I almost missed the announcements and when I managed to arrive at the stage, Tom Spradling, Farrell Kubena (partner with Torchy's Tacos) and Elizabeth Derczo (event organizer extraordinaire) were all excitedly saying that my daughter and I had taken 2nd Place in the special category!!! By the time I managed to check in at the awards desk and pick up our prize the Food Network folks had already moved on so I missed my chance at 30 seconds of fame on TV and that is fine. I plan on returning again (with my daughter) and competing for 1st Place and I hope you can make it too!
Some of the winners are pictured below left to right: Russell Lewis, Mike Rypka and friend of Torchy's awards in two restaurant categories, Kevin and Jill Lewis of Austin Slow Burn who won 1st in the individual special category as well as awards for the Commercial Bottlers too!
Complete list of winners in each category: http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Market/HotSauce
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR!