Sweet Heat

The 16th annual 'Austin Chronicle' Hot Sauce festival

Sweet Heat
Photo By John Anderson

The Austin Chronicle is still running the Hot Sauce Festival. I just wanted to make that clear. Ever since the festival formerly known as the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival got a divorce from its media partner and changed its name, folks have been a little confused about this whole food-festival business.

Food festivals are defined by their missions. When we started the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival back in 1991, the only other Texas food festivals involving hot and spicy foods were chili cook-offs – which had devolved into silly food fights replete with lots of fart jokes.

Our mission was to convince the food world that hot sauces and salsas weren't a novelty or a joke. To that end, we signed on a lineup of top Texas chefs as judges and encouraged restaurants and home chefs to take their salsas to the next level.

But while we were one of the first food festivals to take the whole hot and spicy thing seriously, we didn't take it too seriously. While the competition itself has been conducted according to the highest standards, the party in the park is another story.

Since the beginning, we put out all the hot sauce entries for the public to sample, sold beer and tacos, and provided live music. Admission was always free, but we asked our guests to pitch in to help feed the hungry. In 2005, attendees donated 17,500 lbs. of food and more than $5,500 in cash to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.

The mission of our friends at the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, on the other hand, is to sell Texas wine. The festival was founded by winemakers back in 1986. The Texas wine industry and the Southwestern cuisine grew up together, and Texas winemakers and Southwestern cuisine chefs were natural allies. Together, they attempted to promote an upscale vision of what Texas food and wine could be. Unfortunately, their sales pitch is all about trashing Tex-Mex.

As the popularity of Southwestern cuisine waned, so did the public's interest in Texas wine. Seeking new blood and new ideas, the festival partnered with the food magazine Saveur. But the New Yorkers and Californians that Saveur magazine attracted didn't care much about Texas wine or Southwestern cuisine. These savvy food lovers wanted to ride around on tour buses and eat brisket at our legendary barbecue pits and sample salsa at our historic Tex-Mex joints. The irony was too much for the Hill Country folks to bear. They dumped Saveur and all the events that appealed to the nation's culinary cognoscenti and got back to their provincial roots.

"We are so much more than Tex-Mex and barbecue, not that there's anything wrong with those," Cathy Cochran-Lewis, a member of the board of the Hill Country festival told the press in explaining the festival's return to its snobby, Tex-Mex-bashing roots.

It is a conundrum that Texas haute cuisine doesn't appeal to hipsters from California and Manhattan the way Texas folk cuisine does. Haute cuisine, like other forms of high culture, is supposed to be more sophisticated than peasant cuisine. It is supposed to appeal to a more sophisticated audience. But in Texas, high and low culture are upside down.

Imagine South by Southwest announcing an all-classical music lineup next year. I can just hear the SXSW spokesman saying, "We are so much more than alternative country and Dirty South hip-hop, not that there's anything wrong with those." Imagine taking your out-of-town guests to the Austin Lyric Opera instead of the Broken Spoke. You get the picture.

It's the "low culture" of Texas that intrigues the rest of the world. And the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival is the lowest of the low. Just look at the way we dress. Half of the attendees of this food festival show up nearly unclad. And then they stand there sweating in long lines in the 100-degree heat waiting to sample insanely hot salsas.

But if "low" is the new haute, and the Hill Country festival wants to get out of the national spotlight, then hey, we would be delighted to assume the mantle of our city's major food festival. (Cue the helicopter cameras.)

In light of these ambitions, we tried to class things up a bit this year at the old Hot Sauce contest. We invited a chamber-music group to perform some sonatas. But the classical musicians said it's too hot to sit outside in tuxedos. So, instead, we ended up with Guy Forsyth, the Texas Sapphires, the White Ghost Shivers, and NewBoy on the bandstand. But they all promised to try and work in a few Schubert tunes.

Matt's El Rancho will be there cooking fajitas along with a bunch of other Tex-Mex restaurants. But we got the Nutty Brown Cafe to agree to serve Southwestern blackened chicken and veggie wraps. The desserts will be provided by our friends at Sun Garden Shaved Ice. Sauternes snow cones, anyone?

The dress code remains casual. Come as you are in flip-flops, halter tops, and piercings. And if you arrive topless, we'll be delighted to sell you a Hot Sauce Festival T-shirt, soon to be a valuable collector's item. I doubt you are going to find any Texas wines, but you'll find more than a hundred gallons of free hot sauce and an ocean of excellent ice cold beer.

As for the competition itself, we have added a new category this year. We will now accept entries in red sauce, green sauce, special variety, and "pico de gallo." Pico de gallo, which literally means rooster's beak, is a term most often used to describe salsas made with fresh ingredients.

We added the "pico" because the individual red-sauce category of the contest is getting out of hand. It has always drawn the most contestants, generally around 150. Every year, we find ourselves comparing excellent salsas made with fresh chopped, uncooked ingredients with equally delicious cooked red sauces. So we decided to give both styles a chance by separating them into two categories.

As always, we have rounded up some of the best chefs in the state to do the judging. One of our veteran celebrity chef judges, David Garrido, formerly the executive chef at Jeffrey's, decided to hang it up on haute cuisine this year. Garrido has recently taken a job with the Chuy's restaurant group. As Chuy's executive chef, Garrido will put his stamp on "Tex-Mex DeLuxe." That says a lot about the Texas food scene.

"We are much more than Southwestern cuisine and Texas wine, not that there's anything wrong with those," Garrido said in explaining his change of direction.

See you at Waterloo Park. end story

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