Every August, in the heat of Texas summer, Austinites gather together to celebrate our very favorite condiment. No, not Ranch dressing (although that, too, tends to make a heated-up appearance). We’re talking hot sauce. Salsa. Chile. Colorful, fiery bowls and jars of hot sauce whipped up more ways than you knew were possible. It is an annual tradition that I have known darn near my entire life and one that continues to bring old friends together and set tongues on fire after 22 years.
The Austin Hot Sauce Festival was founded in 1990 by my pops, Robb Walsh, and his colleagues at the Austin Chronicle (the festival’s loyal sponsor to this day) back when I was a wee lass, barely beginning to tolerate black pepper. In its early days, the festival was much smaller, held at an old farmers market that has since come and gone. One of my earliest memories of those first years is excitedly accepting a big, chocolatey brownie offered lovingly by my caring father—and moments later screaming and panting and crying after discovering it was chockfull of jalapeños. You may call it cruel—we call it initiation.
Since then, I’ve seen the festival from inside and out, watching it grow into many times the size it once was. What used to be a few hundred aficionados has now climbed to as many as 15,000 festival-goers, gathering at a variety of venues all over town. This year, the festival is settling at Fiesta Gardens, a scenic, park-like spot on the lake. I think it will become the festival’s new home, offering a cool breeze and meaningful location on the east side, which has a rich Latino history.
Some things, of course, never change. There’s always a line-up of bluesy, folksy, Texas rock-style bands to set the soundtrack and always a crowd of spicy-lovers lined up at booths and tents to taste the best and the hottest from local restaurants, entrepreneurs, and commercial bottlers. The festival always benefits the Capital Area Food Bank, last year raising over $17,000 and nearly 19,000 pounds of food. There’s a lot of heat and a lot of sweat. To counter it, there’s a lot of ice cream and cold beer and folks flapping cardboard fans or toting motorized spray-fans or dumping cups of ice water right over their heads.
Perhaps the festival’s biggest attraction is the contest. Every year, lines of everyday, at-home salsa lovers eagerly submit their self-proclaimed award-winning masterpieces, hoping for a chance to be crowned hot sauce king or queen (figuratively, that is, we don’t actually do the whole royalty shtick, although that might make a great Mardi Gras float one day). Restaurants and bottlers get to play, too, each in their own division. Once just divided by “red” and “green” sauces, today the categories also include “special variety” (think chutney, peach or mango salsa, creamy dips) and “pepper sauce” (à la Tabasco, Cholula, Louisiana Hot Sauce, and so on).
I used to volunteer at the registry table, and I could never get over how passionate and serious and dead-set on being the best these folks were. We’d hand them a plastic spoon to take a bite of their entry (for safety’s sake), and without fail, they’d swoon and savor and rave, “Now that’s a winner!” They’d hang around just a little too long, watching our process just a little too intently, as if we could offer some inside secret or edge. Their hearts would sink as we unceremoniously tore away carefully-crafted labels with clever names, replacing them with nondescript entry numbers like “187-R” or “23-SV.”
I’ve always really admired the entrants’ enthusiasm, especially since graduating to the preliminary judges’ table and observing just how quickly their beloved creations get shrugged, “yick!”ed, mocked, or laughed at and then thrown into the “no” pile. The prelim judges, a motley crew of hot-sauce lovers, critics, veterans, and newbies, sort through the entire set of entries, tasting them on chips or spoons, chatting about them with their neighbors, and ultimately determining through a series of “yes” or “no” votes whether they make it through to the finals.
Most don’t make it. Most aren’t that exciting, staying within the same, safe range of tomato- or tomatillo-and-chile variation. Some go so far beyond it; they receive puzzled looks and wrinkled brows. Ingredients have included things like apricot jam, whole garlic cloves in oil, liquid smoke, and even coffee. Some make you wonder whether they were intentionally submitted as ringers (“Surely no one with taste buds could think this tastes good!”) And, an amazing, delicious, shining few are exalted and eaten freely, passed around far after they’ve made it, and eventually analyzed by a panel of “celebrity” chefs who assign specific point values and determine whether they win or lose.
It has become something of a religious experience for me, a dutifully-attended ceremony that I’ve learned to love from the inside out. And I’m certainly not the only one. Longtime veterans don vintage festival T-shirts (each year there’s a new logo), proudly displaying their hot sauce loyalty and picking each other out of crowds in the off-season. I guess we’re all pretty serious about our hot sauce, no matter which side of the festival we enjoy it from.
You can learn more about the annual Hot Sauce Fest, peruse a list of this year’s winners, and find a fun timeline of logos past at the Austin Chronicle website.