A Spicy Perspective

Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival

Words by Jessi Devenyns

Every year triple digits engulf a brave crowd of Austinites as they meander around Fiesta Gardens shielding themselves from the punishing sun and sticking their tongues gingerly into some of the hottest sauces in the city. With memories of the Ice Cream Festival fading, the Austin Chronicle’s Hot Sauce Festival takes center stage as competitors from Texas vie to be awarded the 2017 prize for best hot sauce in Austin.

A peek into the competition pavilion, you instantly wonder if you’re dreaming, or if you’re genuinely seeing the capsaicin fumes rising into the eaves of the plastic awning. The air itself prickles with excitement and spice. Thousands of folks who love food that fights back clutch water bottles as they amble from table to table sampling sauces from the three categories of spice.

As any true spice lover knows, there are three basic varietals of hot sauce: the vinegary sauces, the fruity sauces, and the smoky sauces. Each one has its place in a well-rounded diet, and all three are well represented at the hot sauce festival. In fact, past winners of the competition are pretty evenly spaced across the board. We have seen the likes of Torchy’s and Tacodeli reel in the prizes alongside individuals like Two Hot Mamas’ salsa roja and Aztexan’s Habenero Supreme sauce. During a blind taste-test, winning is anyone’s game.

Although the competition is now judged by chefs, food writers, and local personalities, 27 years ago, the Austin Hot Sauce Festival was nothing more than a few friends getting together in the park to judge each other’s efforts. These days, however, Fiesta Gardens is the annual home to one of the world’s largest hot sauce festivals. Hundreds of gallons of hot sauce and beverages flow through the veins of eager enthusiasts as brave souls march doggedly from booth to booth to give everyone a fair chance to display their wares before their tongue disintegrates.

While the hot sauce judging is relegated to one side of the live music pavilion, all around independent vendors hawk their wares as they engage in the real competition of persuading the passersby to stop in the 100-degree sunshine to sample their painstakingly crafted sauces. The question soon becomes: how many samples can one individual endure before their internal temperature surpasses that of the outdoors? With so many sauces to try, that question quickly becomes a difficult one to answer.

Even for the toughest though, the combination of internal and external heat can be too much, and many end up simply taking a healthy stock of jars home to taste later. However, for the price of three nonperishable food items for the Central Texas Food Bank, at least enjoying the fiery food isn’t going to burn a hole in your wallet.

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