To the Nth Degree

The 15th annual 'Austin Chronicle' Hot Sauce Festival

To the Nth Degree

"No más, no más!" we cried. The preliminary judges attempted to throw in the towel after the first 300 hot sauces, but the sauces just kept coming. There was no mercy. Last year, we were inundated with salsa. The logistics were staggering. We were scrambling to find places to stack the bottles. Why the spike in interest in the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival after 14 years?

Maybe there was some kind of astrological convergence between the big dipper and the celestial tostada? Maybe the next generation of salsa-makers has come of age? Whatever the reason, last year's 14th annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival saw a record number of entries, a record crowd, and a record haul for charity. Attendees donated 19,000 lbs. of food and more than $4,500 to the Capital Area Food Bank.

In this, the 15th year of the event, those of us who do the judging are afraid the numbers might grow even larger. The world-class entertainment includes Los Jazz Vatos, the South Austin Jug Band, and the Gourds. The spectacular food is coming from such popular eateries as Curra's, Doña Emilia's, Matt's Famous El Rancho, Ruby's Bar-B-Q, and Santa Rita. And thanks to the increasing number of entries, there will be more than 100 gallons of fresh, homemade hot sauce available for free samples.

In anticipation of this mighty ocean of hot sauce washing over us, we have taken steps to heighten our preparedness. We have enlisted more preliminary judges. We have called up retired veteran preliminary judges who swore they would never do that to their bodies again and begged them to return to active duty. We have groveled and whined and promised to buy them more beer.

And we have tried to think of any possible inducement to lure more celebrity chefs to the judging table for the finals.

To the Nth Degree

To that end, we asked ourselves: Why do celebrity chefs, most of them the owners of hugely successful restaurants and/or the authors of bestselling cookbooks, agree to judge the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Contest?

And we concluded it's probably not the free T-shirt. In reality, it's a grueling afternoon. After the preliminary judges sample the total field of between 300 and 400 hot sauces, they send on somewhere around 50 salsas to the finals. The final judges deliberate over every sauce and fill out formal ballots that require separate scores for appearance, aroma, and flavor. Which means these famous chefs have to sit there and gargle with 50 hot sauces before dinner.

We have never really figured out exactly why these famous folk do it. Or why they are such good sports. We just say "thank you" a lot and count our blessings. We do know that one reason the chefs have shown up in the past has been to promote their cookbooks. Unfortunately, we haven't had a booksigning table at the Hot Sauce Contest for many years. And that's too bad, because the autograph session wasn't just good publicity for the chefs; it also provided an opportunity for the hot-sauce-eating public to rub elbows with the stars who were doing the judging.

This year presents a unique opportunity to return to that tradition. After all, our gang of celebrity judges includes some of the hottest food authors in the state. As it happens, one of their exciting new books is rolling off the presses just in time for the festival. Austin pepper expert Jean Andrews, who is also judging at the contest this year, will debut her brand-new book from the University of Texas Press, The Peppers Cookbook: 200 Recipes From the Pepper Lady's Kitchen, in August. (See review, p.48.)

Veteran judge Rebecca Rather also returns this year. So, we have invited the author of The Pastry Queen: Royally Good Recipes From the Texas Hill Country's Rather Sweet Bakery & Cafe to sign her bestselling cookbook at the autograph party. The book is the first to put Texas baking on the map (see "Holiday Gift Guide: Cookbook Reviews," Austin Chronicle, Dec. 10, 2004).

Other cookbook authors and longtime hot sauce judges like David Garrido and Jay McCarthy will be invited to bring some of their books along, too. I'll no doubt climb on the bandwagon myself by bringing along a few copies of The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos to autograph. Released last summer, this homage to cheese enchiladas was nominated for the International Association of Culinary Professionals' 2005 Cookbook Award and is now in its fifth printing. It's also a good source for hot-sauce recipes, if I do say so myself.

And, of course, all these hot and spicy cookbooks are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to available chile-pepper paraphernalia. You'll find every sort of savory souvenir imaginable in the booths at Waterloo Park, including the fabulous 15th annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival commemorative T-shirt. So, come early, come hungry, and bring your shopping bags. The chips are about to be dipped. end story

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