Meet & Heat
The 17th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Hot Sauce Festival
This year's Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival is the 17th. I had to look that up; it's not something on the tip of my tongue. After all these years the annual events run together, but also after all these years, each one remains a unique event. In many ways, hanging an annual number on them is dishonest and unfair. People who attended the first one no longer live here; some who will attend this year's weren't born, weren't living here, or couldn't have cared less when the Chronicle launched it.
The Hot Sauce Festival is a celebration of food and imagination. I'd say it had to do with tomatoes and chiles, but entrants' innovations have knocked any givens way out of the ballpark. Almost every year I visit both the preliminary and final round of judges, who are horrified by some of the sauces and blown away by the brilliance of others.
When the judges hit a stretch of uninspired sauces – not life-threatening or potentially tastebud-destroying, but lacking any culinary daring – they have been known to grow bitter and complain. Truth be told, I usually only sample a few hot sauces each year. This, for some reason, has caused some controversy with some of the judges over the years. Especially those preliminary judges who year after year, without much in the way of acknowledgement, slug their way through hundreds of hot sauces (see "The El Paso Connection"). Now, even though both preliminary and final judges might give me the evil eye, mutter about mundane sauces, swear curses at those in which they believe the main ingredient to be breakfast cereal or old cigarette butts, they still keep coming back. As much as they protest, I'm afraid their presence speaks for itself.
Over the years, a majority of the best and most well-known chefs in Texas have served as judges. These chefs make fantastic food that sometimes seems as though it is not really bound to earthly recipes, but they never forget the small restaurants, taco stands, kitchens, county fairs, and cook-offs. Consider the many high-caliber chefs this state is most proud of: When each of those names comes into your head, if you listen very carefully, you'll hear a soft voice saying "yes," "yes," "yes," as to whether they honored this event by serving as a judge.
The old saying is that only mad dogs and Englishmen come out in the midday sun. Well, in Austin, thousands over the years have come out in the searing afternoon sun to taste countless hot sauces. People of all ages from the widest range of social and economic groups gather together. They wait in line to taste hot sauces, buy more hot sauces, drink beer, listen and dance to the music, ogle one another, and then go taste more hot sauces. Every year as I watch this most-remarkably diverse of diverse crowds, I find myself reassured for at least another year that there is little reason to worry about keeping Austin weird. It is.
Robb Walsh, who came up with the idea of this festival, was Chronicle Food editor when it all began. His adventures led to his current residency as restaurant critic for the Houston Press. Either through some kind of exquisite masochism or a truly mutant sense of parental pride, he has yet to miss a Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival and is still head judge of the event.
For many years now, Virginia B. Wood has been the Chronicle's Food editor. Among her many responsibilities is the editorial for this special Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival supplement, as well as the coverage we will provide next week. I might be wrong here, but I think Virginia has followed my wisely laid out course of avoidance over the years. She's very involved, but has never herself served as a judge: for safety's sake as much as anything else.
Once again, the lineup of judges is stellar (see "Celebrity Judges," below), but the Hot Sauce Festival is not really about prestige or gourmet tastes. It is about the hundreds and folks and restaurants who enter, the thousands who attend, and the tens of thousands around the state who spend some time each year working on their own recipes. The USDA might not list hot sauce among its basic food groups, but, as usual, Texans know better, and each year this festival confirms their faith.
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