Gathering 'Round the Flame

Tears of Joy
Tears of Joy (Photo By John Anderson)

Ten years ago, George Bush was president and a few of my old friends in South Austin still didn't have air conditioning. Back in those days of the great savings and loan bust, jobs were scarce and houses were dirt cheap. With the Austin economy at a standstill, we wacky slackers had nothing better to do than stand around in the hot sun and eat hot sauce. And so The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival was born on a hot Sunday afternoon in August 1991.

We expected a couple of dozen entries. There were hundreds. We expected a few spectators. There were thousands. The Farmer's Market where we held the event overflowed. Every year the contest got a little bigger. Of course, the hundreds of gallons of free hot sauce, great free music, and lots of beer were a big draw, but when the crowd swelled to over 10,000, we were concerned.

How could an event held outdoors in the hottest part of the summer snowball on us? We still don't understand it. But maybe it's because, somewhere around the end of August, cabin fever sets in. Like Yankees who go crazy after too many months spent indoors during the winter, Austinites get sick of the AC and the TV. The need to go outside and shake our fists at the heat becomes overwhelming this time of year. Austinites have always had a slightly perverse relationship with the heat anyway.

But besides the free hot sauce and the heat-defying rituals, The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival has another appeal. Since the decline of Aqua Fest, newspapers and magazines around the country have begun to refer to the Hot Sauce Festival as Austin's hometown festival. We are deeply honored to think of The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival as a defining civic event on a par with such classics as the Luling Watermelon Thump, the Gilmore Yamboree, the Fire Ant Festival in Marshall, or the Peanut Festival in Gorman.

It says a lot about our hometown. Big Texas cities aren't supposed to have hometown festivals; they are supposed to have sophisticated events like Trade Shows, World Fairs, and Republican National Conventions. In this sense, the Hot Sauce Festival fills another perverse need, the need to associate with the hicks. Austin is a big city with a Peter Pan complex. (We won't grow up!! We don't want to be a major urban area!!) We relish the idea that larger, more sophisticated Texas cities still think of us as a bunch of hicks -- thus we remain the Austin we once were.

Besides, we know that in their hearts, all urban Texans are longing to gather 'round the giant concrete peanut in the town square. They are dying to shed their sophistication and play cow patty bingo and spit watermelon seeds. Urban Texans are so desperate to get back to Texas folk culture that they are willing to drive for hours to get pictures of their children in the arms of giant fire ants -- or stand out in the hot sun and eat hot sauce.

The 10th Annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival will be held this Sunday at Waterloo Park. We invite you to come listen to the free music, drink beer, and eat free hot sauce. Yes, we expect it to be quite hot.

Why would you want to go to a park in the middle of the afternoon and stand around under the 100-degree sun? Because we all have our perverse needs. Whether you need to burn your mouth with some truly fiery salsas, defy the heat of the sun in the middle of the summer, or shed your façade of urban sophistication, that's up to you. But one way or the other, we'll see you there!

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