Hitting the Sauce
Scoop. Crunch. Swig. Vote. Pass.
To this day, the whole thing is still a mystery. Why would a group of seemingly intelligent people gather at the peak of the Austin summertime for a masochistic Tex-Mex marathon? Who in their right mind would sample hundreds of hot sauces in a single sitting? And most importantly, why would they repeat this arduous process every damn year? These are questions that haunt The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival's dedicated crew of preliminary judges. Their job, which they usually accept, is to narrow the field of entries from a bloated 300 to a manageably lean 30 -- the finalist pool from which high-profile celebrity judges choose the champions. At the request of festival organizer Robb Walsh, these stalwart samplers assemble annually for a long round of tasting, drinking, and habanero-spiked trash talk.
The festival's "preliminary judging staff" is mostly a rotating group of randoms, but there are a few folks you can always count on seeing. The El Paso Contingent: Carlos Contreras and Los Hermanos Alvarado (Henry and Fred) are 10-year veterans of the Festival, quick with a laugh and legends of the worst sauces ever. Robb's brother Dave Walsh has been there every year as well, probably due to some lost boyhood bet or high school extortion photos. The always good-natured Jim Shahin shows up (nine years running) sometimes with wife Jessica and soon-to-be old guy son Sam. There's usually a rotating group of Chronicle types and local writers filling out the ranks -- Texas Monthly's Joe Nick Patoski, Marion Winik before her Pennsylvania emigration, a pre-NYC Meredith Philips, kitchen scientist Pat Earvolino, and cabrito connoisseur John Morthland. All in all, it's a suitably motley crew, and for a single Sunday, we all get together for a tonsil-scorching brunch of tortilla chips, Mexican beer, and heaps of hot sauces.
Every year right about brunch time, we gather in a sealed banquet room at Serrano's Symphony Square. After the requisite greetings and pepper-related pleasantries, we sit down to a long table covered with jars, plastic buckets, and open-mouthed Tupperware, each container marked with a coded strip of masking tape. The voting process couldn't be simpler: Everybody tastes an entry, renders a quick judgment, and then passes it down the line. The scoring "system" is easy enough to follow -- three yes votes and you move on to the next round; three strikes and you're out.
The first category is always the biggest -- Red Sauce, Individual -- and once we eat our way through the first full table, there's usually several more ice chests brimming with entries. As we take our places around the table, this is a rare moment of calm -- probably the only one we'll see all day. And with chips, spoons, and tortillas at the ready, we take a collective breath and dive in.
Chaos ensues pretty much immediately. After a quick "chip and dip" and a moment of reflection, 10 jars rotate clockwise with various votes attached. "Hmmm ... this is all right. Yes." Pass to the right. "Ooooh. blech. No." Pass to the right. Two yes, one no. The early rounds are the most straightforward. Over the course of the afternoon, we'll need a group of about 30 sauces for the finals, so the preliminary judges are swift and efficient. One yes, two no. Once a sauce gets the dreaded three strikes, it's stacked in the corner and an untested sauce replaces it on the table.
The red sauce category usually brings out the purists -- cooks who adhere to the standard pico/picante formula (tomato, chiles, onion, cilantro, garlic, and assorted seasonings). There will be the occasional secret ingredient and mixing of chiles, but very few surprises. Spice balance is the biggest issue ("Whooo ... WAY too much garlic," or "Is this KETCHUP?"). The containers circulate with breakneck speed. "Two and two. We need a tiebreaker here!" Fred hands a chunky jar down the line. Robb tries to referee the proceedings, quickly refilling the table as the pile of rejects grows. "How many finalists so far? Anybody need a beer? Who's got R-22?"
Midway through the Individual Reds, the judges are quick and smooth. Scoop. Crunch. Swig. Vote. Pass. Repeat ad infinitum. Chipotle, ancho, and jalapeño peppers. Homegrown, Roma, and canned tomato. Red, yellow and white onion. Cumin, lime, and the occasional pinch of curry. The red sauce entries with high-maintenance homemade packaging are usually the blandest. "Pretty, but not really tasty. I'm indifferent." Pass.
After the first full table, spirits are high and the beer flows between crunches. At the end of the second full table, the chip baskets are refilled and the judges start looking for a breather. Robb, equal parts party host and drill sergeant, tries to keep us on track. "Hey, we got about 20 left in the individual. Then the restaurants. Tea? Water? More chips?" Table three comes and goes, Commercial entries get their verdicts. Another round of beer arrives, and we get a 10-minute breather before the Greens.
The break is usually good for a leg stretch and a little reflection. "Not as bad as last year, I don't think." "Really? I don't remember them using as much Liquid Smoke. Uhhhgh." "What's with the nutmeg? That's nasty." Smokers work through a quick cigarette in the August heat. Then it's back to the table.
Green sauces are usually the smallest section, but a bit dicier than the reds. Most cooks agree that "red" translates to "tomato," but the color "green" can mean almost anything. The entries are mostly tomatillo, but they can also involve just about anything with chlorophyll (avocado, spinach, okra, or lawn clippings). By this time, a beery haze and subtle palate fatigue start to set in, but usually not soon enough. "Ooooh. What is this? Collard purée? Three strikes." "Good tomatillo, but no tang. Where's the love? Two yes, one no." "Jeez, c'mon folks. We only have two finalists. Is there anything on the brink? Even passable?"
Occasionally, the celebrity judges drop by to watch the action, and the preliminary judges -- in accordance with time-honored tradition -- start to hate them. In a few hours, they'll casually taste and ponder a palate-busting collection of 20 sauces. We've gone through 200 and we still haven't started the category we've all learned to dread: special varieties. Another break, another smoke, and we return to a freshly stocked table.
Special varieties, as it's called in the trade, is the purely experimental group of hot sauces. It's the category almost exclusively populated by kitchen visionaries, culinary free spirits, and the truly sadistic. It's the place where just about anything can happen, as long as the sauce is "hot" and the ersatz creator can stomach a spoonful of their own entry. Flaming orange mango/habanero juices compete against beet-colored pastes that reek of vinegar and grilled figs. This is the category of a few hits and a great many misses. For every outstanding feat of culinary imagination there are 10 absolutely awful concoctions that, in a perfect world, would mandate five years of hard jail time. When it comes to this catch-all category, it doesn't have to be edible to be eligible.
Five beers into the process, diplomacy goes right out the window. Crunch. The usually-jovial Carlos scowls big and bad. "What were they thinking? Do you taste the WD-40 in this?" Crunch. Dave recoils a bit. "What's that taste? House paint? Blecchhh." Crunch. "Cream of celery soup, maybe a little napalm?" Near the end of this round, the prelim judges earmark one or two of the truly vile mixtures to advance a round -- just to keep the celebrity judges honest. When they bite down on stewed ancho sauce studded with roasted peanuts and coffee grounds, they'll have a brief glimpse of the entries they missed.
In past years, this last act of our annual pageant was marked with performances by the breathtakingly theatrical Marion Winik, whose Richter-scale expressions of disgust and super-sonic "spit takes" bordered on the magical. One bite of an offending sauce would trigger high-volume re-enactments of Linda Blair's Exorcist scenes. "OH! MY! GOD!!!" Marion could scream like a preacher's wife at a John Waters screening. Her head would almost spin in undiluted disgust. "This is the most HORRIBLE stuff I've EVER eaten!" A quick pause, then a quick pass to the right. "It's got one 'no.' Try this." And on to the next jar. "OH! MY! GOD!!!"
After three hours of solid tasting, the table is empty, our palates are scarred by countless crunchy chips, and the celebrities arrive for their 20-minute savoring session. And with that, the preliminary judges are off-duty until next year. We walk into the summer heat asking why we do this to ourselves. Maybe we'll discuss it over beers -- at next year's festival.
Four-year veteran judge Pableaux Johnson is the author of the forthcoming Lonely Planet World Food Guide: New Orleans, due in bookstores this November.