Festival Welcome and 20-Year Retrospective
Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival
By Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Aug. 27, 2010
Welcome to the 20th annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival – Austin's official end-of-summer celebration of fiery hot sauces paired with ice-cold beer, smokin' local music, and even hotter weather. Our annual party is not Austin's oldest continual food event, a distinction belonging to the St. Elias Mediterranean Festival, which turns 78 years young on Oct. 1. Neither can we claim to be the weirdest food party in the River City, because that title surely belongs to Spamarama, an April Fools' joke started more than 30 years ago and embraced by the Austintatious faithful until its sad demise in 2007. What we can say is that in its 20-year life span, The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival has had a considerable affect on the culinary culture of Austin and the state of Texas. It has shaped careers, created business opportunities, promoted restaurants, inspired food art, and enhanced Austin's reputation as a city with an active food scene, all the while generating thousands of pounds of food for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.
Twenty years ago, American regional cuisines were not a hot topic of nationwide conversation, Austin wasn't even a blip on the national culinary radar, and hot sauce had yet to replace ketchup as America's condiment of choice. But it was an emblematic component of any authentic Tex-Mex meal. Cities across Texas were (and still are) justifiably proud of their hometown restaurants' representations of an authentic American regional cuisine. No two cities were prouder or more renowned for their Mexican restaurants than Austin and San Antonio. In 1991, Austin Chronicle Food Editor Robb Walsh challenged San Antonio to a hot sauce cook-off competition in a festival setting at the Travis County Farmers' Market. Austin was ultimately declared the winner, and that event grew into the party thousands will enjoy this Sunday.
Robb Walsh's fascination with chile peppers and Tex-Mex food grew exponentially. This led him to a stint as editor of Chile Pepper magazine, provided source material for several books on different aspects of Tex-Mex cuisine, and established him as a regional foods authority. Although now based in Houston, Walsh invites a group of celebrity chefs to help him judge the contest in Austin every August. Festival organizer Elizabeth Derczo helped create the original festival as an employee of the Chronicle's marketing department. Her yearly success at putting on the festival would eventually become one of the building blocks of her own event production company, Austintatious Events. In addition to putting on a successful hot sauce festival every year, Derczo is also the official institutional memory of the event, and we have her to thank for the historical timeline featured in this supplement.
As noted in this week's "Bringing the Heat," several local people have parlayed their participation in the annual festival into careers as bottlers of their own brands of hot sauce. Austin now actively supports a thriving cottage industry of artisan condiment producers, and some of those companies use the festival as a proving ground for new additions to their product lines. Winning or placing in the hot sauce contest is a point of pride for area restaurants, as well. The homegrown Trudy's chain, famous for homestyle Southern cooking and Tex-Mex specialties, had a mortal lock on the restaurant category for years until it retired to the Hall of Flame (see the list). Small independent restaurants such as Curra's Grill, Iguana Grill, El Caribe, Sazón, and the sorely missed Evita's Botanitas used contest appearances to broaden their customer base and wins to enhance their marketing plans. The yearly festival T-shirts have become collectors' items, valued as much for their whimsical food art as for mementos of a great party. The exquisite Renaissance Glass-designed plaques awarded to the winners are prized for both their beauty and status. The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival was one of the first local food events to attract production crews from the Food Network and the Travel Channel to the Texas capital. Austin being featured in segments on both those networks helped focus a spotlight on our evolving culinary scene; these days, we're unlikely to go a month without some Central Texas chef, restaurant, barbecue joint, artisan food producer, or food trailer showing up in the national media.
As you can tell, we're extremely proud of this annual party, and we couldn't be happier that you're here to participate in our ongoing cultural phenomenon. We encourage you to enjoy the music, eat plenty of hot sauce, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate to survive in the sun!